Composer Peter Lieberson seems so good-natured, so serenely at peace with himself, it would not be surprising if this tanned meditation enthusiast with the sharp cheekbones and winning smile began to spontaneously levitate as he discusses his latest work.
Lieberson, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., is in town for this weekend’s premiere of “Neruda Songs,” his setting of five love sonnets by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The songs -- performed by his wife, the celebrated mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, with accompaniment by the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- were co-commissioned by the Phil and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Lieberson, 58, is known for an eclectic style that combines jazz with touches of New Age and an otherwise mainstream harmonic language. The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini has credited him with “wistful lyricism, pensive spirituality and rhythmic spunkiness of a kind that you might expect from an American baby boomer.”
Over lunch in an artist’s suite at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Lieberson describes himself as a kind of conscientious objector in the wars that have long wracked the classical music world.
“This is a battle that no longer needs to be fought,” he says, describing the still-smoldering fight between academic 12-tone composers and the minimalists and other mavericks who oppose them. “There was something to it; there were a lot of people hurt in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But I don’t think it’s necessary to keep re-creating the struggle.”
He feels similarly about assertive music nationalism that has at times gripped his countrymen. “I think it’s a big mistake to think the only real American composers are the ones who are off the wall, who are eccentric, outside the circle,” he says, “that composers distinguish themselves, in a very overt way, from what’s going on in Europe.
“Nowadays, we’re all one world. It’s foolish, I believe, to create nationalistic views, whether that has to do with waging war or culturally. The point is to create music that is beautiful, and universal. And beauty comes in many guises.”
Somehow, Lieberson manages to put this one-world-ism across without sounding like Shirley MacLaine.
This ecumenical quality may derive from an upbringing that was rarefied and highbrow -- he’s the son of Goddard Lieberson, former president of Columbia Records, and the ballerina Vera Zorina -- but that also exposed him to a wide range of music and culture.
“The one thing I’m very grateful for is that there wasn’t any discrimination between Broadway music, classical music, jazz -- it was just a question of whether it was good or not.”
“Peter is extremely serious about his work,” says pianist Emanuel Ax, for whom Lieberson has composed several pieces. “He’s musical royalty in a way, but he’s a remarkably down-to-earth, good-humored guy who’s also a far-seeing composer.”
Lieberson’s interest in poetry far predates “Neruda Songs.”
As a teenager who loved Charles Bukowski and an NYU English student fascinated by Keats and Baudelaire, his early dream was to become a poet. “But somehow language was too specific,” he says, “and I couldn’t express what I wanted to express in words. Now, I don’t think so much about ‘expressing myself’ -- that isn’t so much of an issue. That’s a young man’s angst.”
Years later, he set five of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” to music in a project similar to his new one. Despite his love for the brooding German’s verse, Lieberson did not know the language.
“Even if you don’t speak it, you have a sense of how it flows,” he says. “And it produces musical ideas. Rilke’s original German produced ideas that simply would not have happened with the English.”
He chose to leave Rilke’s lines in German, just as he has left Neruda’s works in the original Spanish.
“English is one of the most difficult languages to set,” he says, adding that it can be clunky, matter of fact and literal -- lacking even German’s odd integrity and spiritual connotations.
“There’s a certain kind of sensual quality to the Spanish language,” he says. “Because these are love songs I’m writing for Lorraine, that’s what drew me to the language itself. For example, ‘amor,’ love. ‘Love’ is very blunt and direct. But ‘amor,’ you already have this kind of lilt.”
Once he had the right poet and the right language, the real work started: “What I wanted to do was get a kind of flow of moods,” which took a year of mulling over.
The poems range from awe at love’s power, to joy and appreciation, to fear of loss, to relaxation, to an acceptance of death. The five poems, he says, make up a narrative or drama. “I can’t remember the Spanish, but Neruda says, ‘In truth, there’s no birth and no death to love. It is like a flowing river, only changing lands and changing lips.’ ”
Lieberson was drawn to these poets for the same reason he was attracted to Tibetan Buddhism 30-odd years ago: an interest in the spirit, in how change and continuity operate together, and in “transforming poison into nectar.” He recalls a few lines of Rilke, then says, “In a way it’s beyond Buddhism, it’s just a spiritual realization. And realization and enlightenment are not solely the province of Buddhism.”
In some ways, his latest project might seem like a pretty straightforward task. “These were love songs, written for somebody I loved, so they were easy in a sense. My main concern was to create the atmosphere. So there’s no virtuosity in that sense; it’s not like it’s a concerto for orchestra.”
The role of the orchestra, he says, is mostly to support the voice and at some points increase the intensity. Sounds easy, especially for a composer who is, in Ax’s words, “extremely accurate” in his ability to conceive a piece “in his mind’s ear” before it’s played.
But, says Lieberson: “It’s harder -- there’s a certain sensuality and passion that comes through; it has to be delicately intertwined with the orchestra.
“The balance issue, with the voice onstage and the orchestra onstage, is very, very difficult. To write for the voice and orchestra,” he says, “is perhaps the most subtle and delicate task.”
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 2 p.m. today and Sunday
Price: $15 to $125
Contact: (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com