Peter Lieberson; composer blended modern techniques

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / April 28, 2011

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Peter Lieberson, a widely admired composer whose music often blended modern techniques, a late romantic expressiveness, and a world view deeply inspired by Buddhism, died Saturday in Tel Aviv. The cause was complications of lymphoma, according to Kristin Lancino, vice president of G. Schirmer, which publishes his music. He had been undergoing treatment in Israel, but lived in Santa Fe. He was 64.

The most widely acclaimed work of his later years was the “Neruda Songs,’’ an exquisite and deeply felt song cycle written for his wife, the celebrated mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

That work, cocommissioned and later recorded by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, blended a sophistication of craft with a piercing emotional directness. Based on settings of Pablo Neruda’s love sonnets, the piece seemed to place love and the possibility of loss in a kind of sublime equipoise. Writing in a program letter, BSO music director James Levine described the work as “so right, so human, and so moving in its union of music and words.’’

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson fell victim to breast cancer in 2006, not long after Dr. Lieberson received his own cancer diagnosis. While battling his illness, the composer returned to Neruda’s poetry for another BSO commission, a work titled “Songs of Love and Sorrow,’’ which the orchestra premiered in March 2010 at Symphony Hall.

Shortly before the first performance, Dr. Lieberson spoke to the Globe about the work’s themes. “What makes the human life so poignant is the recognition of its profound impermanence,’’ he said. “Everything, even our thoughts, our emotions, not just big events, but little events. I think with that kind of recognition comes a great appreciation for what it means to be alive.’’

Many composers of Dr. Lieberson’s generation, trained in the rigorously atonal styles that flourished in universities during the post-World War II decades, later distanced themselves from high-modernist traditions, gravitating instead toward more neoromantic and tonally centered approaches. But few managed to negotiate between stylistic extremes with the imagination and depth that Dr. Lieberson brought to his best works.

In some sense, his gift for elegantly drawing together strands of music’s past and present could be seen in his first major scores, including his Piano Concerto, written for the BSO and pianist Peter Serkin. Reporting in the Globe in 1984, Paul Driver praised the piece, which made use of a 12-tone row, as “an astonishing synthesis of romantic and modern.’’

The composer, Driver wrote, “has learned how to charge his music with a potent internal magnetism; the notes seem to be attracted to each other in the old classical sense; there is real harmonic depth. Which is another way of saying that his concerto surges with creative energy.’’

The Piano Concerto explicitly drew on Buddhist themes, as did its successor, a second orchestral work written for the BSO titled “Drala,’’ which premiered in 1986.

Dr. Lieberson was born in New York and came of age in a musical home (his father, Goddard Lieberson, was president of Columbia Records). He studied English literature and then music, initially with Milton Babbitt and later with Charles Wuorinen and others at Columbia University.

In the 1970s his interests in Tibetan Buddhism deepened, and he eventually moved to Boston with his first wife, Ellen Kearney, to direct a meditation program called Shambhala Training. While in Boston, he earned a doctorate at Brandeis University (studying with Donald Martino and Martin Boykan) and taught music at Harvard from 1984 to 1988, at which time he gave up his position and moved from Newton to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to direct another Shambhala Training center.

“I was happy teaching at Harvard,’’ he told the Globe at the time, “but Shambhala Training is closer to my heart. In terms of writing music, I suppose I will have less time now, but I still have a number of commitments.’’

He managed to continue exploring his Buddhist beliefs through his major works including “King Gesar’’ from 1991 and “Ashoka’s Dream,’’ centered on a historical Indian emperor, which was premiered in Santa Fe in 1997. He married Lorraine Hunt in 1999 and wrote his absorbing “Rilke Songs’’ for her in 2001, followed by his “Neruda Songs,’’ which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award.

Dr. Lieberson earned commissions from several major orchestras, but retained a particularly close relationship with the BSO, dating back to the start of his career.

“I feel that I have grown up as a composer with this orchestra,’’ he wrote in a program note, “and I think that my major works, if there are any, have been written for the BSO and with the sound of this orchestra in mind.’’

He leaves his wife, Rinchen Lhamo of Santa Fe, whom he married in 2008, and three daughters from his first marriage, Katherine, Christina, and Elizabeth Lieberson of New York City.

A Sukavati memorial ceremony took place Tuesday at the Shambhala Center in Brookline.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at