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Three Questions Before the First Night, by Carson Cooman

Peter Lieberson -- 'Neruda Songs'

American composer Peter Lieberson (born 1946) first became widely known when his extended Piano Concerto was premièred by Peter Serkin and the Boston Symphony in 1983. Since then, he has composed a series of concerti, orchestral works, operas, and chamber music that are widely played and enjoyed by performers and audiences alike.

The son of the former president of Columbia Records (Goddard Lieberson) and ballerina Vera Zorina, Lieberson studied at Columbia and Brandeis Universities and taught at Harvard University. Since 1994, he has devoted himself exclusively to composition.

Lieberson's music and its subject matter is often influenced by Buddhist philosophy. He even served for a period as the international director of Shambhala Training in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He received special acclaim for his operas, Ashoka's Dream and King Gesar, both on subjects of ancient 'enlightened' rulers. He has collaborated frequently with pianist Peter Serkin, composing three concerti for him, as well as numerous solo and chamber works.

Lieberson is currently completing a cantata for the New York Philharmonic and Chorus (with soloists Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano and Gerald Finlay, baritone). Entitled The World In Flower, it will be premièred in May 2006 and completes his cycle of 'enlightened ruler' pieces. The work is inspired by Emperor Shotoku Taishi who first brought Buddhism to Japan.

Lieberson's latest completed large-scale work, Neruda Songs for voice and orchestra was jointly commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic (who gave the first performances in May of 2005) and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Boston Symphony will thus give the second set of 'world première' performances on 25 and 26 November 2005, under its music director James Levine, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Lieberson's wife, American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, will be the soloist.

OneCarson Cooman: This new work is the second large song-cycle you've written for your wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson -- following the Rilke Songs (1997-2001). What was it like to write for someone who you know so very well?

Peter Lieberson: First of all, those two works were quite different cycles to compose. I was just getting to know Lorraine when I began the first of the five Rilke settings in 1997. I worked on them over a period of five years, and during that time, I became more and more familiar with Lorraine's voice. Thus, my understanding of how she sounded in specific registers became more and more clear. I really wrote this piece specifically for Lorraine's voice rather than for the mezzo-soprano voice as a kind of defined instrument. Having the privilege of living with Lorraine and hearing her rehearse and perform many kinds of vocal music, I began to really appreciate what her individual voice was capable of doing.

TwoCC: How did you choose the poems of Neruda that you wished to set, and how does it feel as an American composer to approach the Spanish language poetry of Neruda?

PL: Setting German in the Rilke Songs was very different from setting Spanish. I was brought up with Rilke because my mother was a German speaker, and Lorraine is a Spanish speaker -- but I myself do not speak either language.

Considering Rilke's complex use of the German language, I originally thought about setting a translation in English. However, with all due respect to the many great translators who have worked on it, there is no translation that truly captures Rilke. And of special significance to me, working with the original German suggested certain kinds of melodic lines that the English did not.

It was similar with the Spanish of Pablo Neruda. I spent about a year while I was doing other projects choosing the texts, because there are a hundred love sonnets of Neruda. I wanted to create a dramatic arc in the setting of the poems.

I finally narrowed it down to five. I had originally thought about using as many as eight. I wanted in the cycle to create a mirror of the very different faces of love that are present in all of us and that are also present in the Neruda love sonnets.

The last poem is very much about the nature of loss and separation from one's beloved because sickness or death inevitably comes and one will be parted from one's beloved. So, it's a very bittersweet ending.

ThreeCC: You've had a long and fruitful relationship with the Boston Symphony, who have commissioned a number of large works from you over the years -- Drala, the first two piano concertos, and now the Neruda Songs. What has it been like working with this orchestra all the various occasions over the years, and have you noticed changes in yourself or the orchestra over this time?

PL: I'm probably able to comment more on changes in myself than changes in the orchestra, although the orchestra certainly has changed. There are many people who are the same, but it has changed in overall character and many of the players are different. Most significantly of course, the conductor has recently changed. The first three commissions were under the direction of Seiji Ozawa. This new work will be presented under James Levine, the orchestra's new music director.

I would say that the period between composing the First Piano Concerto (1981-1983) and Drala (1986) was a time of really learning about the orchestra in general and the BSO in particular. My first piano concerto was actually my first piece for orchestra. I learned a tremendous amount in the context of having that work performed by the BSO. To then go back and write another piece for the same orchestra a few years later, I really felt as though I knew the sound of the orchestra and the sound of individual players.

Red Garuda (the second piano concerto; 1999) came quite a bit later. By that point, I certainly had a sense of what the orchestra's sound was, but it was less significant to my writing. By that point, I had changed my whole style of orchestration so that it was pared down and much more exposed. I felt I had learned how to get the same effects as before without using the entire orchestra all the time as I had done in earlier pieces such as the first piano concerto.

Copyright © 24 October 2005 Carson P Cooman, Rochester, NY, USA





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