Peter Lieberson, an American composer who wrote his most inspired songs for his great love, the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, died Saturday of complications from lymphoma at a hospital in Tel Aviv, where he had been receiving treatment. He was 64.
Lieberson, who lived in Santa Fe, N.M., was a well-established artist before meeting Lorraine Hunt. His works were performed by the top U.S. orchestras and soloists including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianists Emanuel Ax and Peter Serkin.
In 1983, Serkin premiered Lieberson's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which then commissioned three more works from him, including the 2010 "Songs of Love and Sorrow" for baritone, to poems by Pablo Neruda.
Lieberson was especially drawn to vocal music in recent years, writing songs for Hunt Lieberson to poems by Neruda and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Hunt Lieberson had canceled most of her concerts in the months before her death of breast cancer at age 52 in 2006 — except for performances of the "Neruda Songs" with orchestra that her husband wrote for her and she recorded.
Born in New York on Oct. 25, 1946, Lieberson was the son of Goddard Lieberson, then president of Columbia Records, and Vera Zorina, an actress and former ballerina. He learned harmony by listening to great jazz recordings and live Broadway shows, as well as to recordings his father's company made of living classical composers including Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.
Those influences converged in Lieberson's music, along with a fascination for Buddhism that blossomed during his years at Columbia University. He went to Colorado in 1976 to study with the Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and married another disciple, Ellen Kearney. The couple led a Buddhist program in Boston, and Lieberson earned a doctorate from Brandeis University and taught composition at Harvard University.
Buddhism was central to his opera "Ashoka's Dream," the story of an ancient emperor of India. It premiered in Santa Fe in 1997, with Lorraine Hunt singing the part of Ashoka's second wife.
After divorcing Kearney, Lieberson married Lorraine Hunt in 1999.
Lieberson is survived by his third wife and longtime friend, the Tibetan writer Rinchen Lhamo, and three children from his first marriage.