Love and hate, juxtaposed
“If your eyes were not the color of the moon,” the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote in one of a hundred sonnets to his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, “if you were not that bread the fragrant moon kneads, sprinkling flour across the sky, oh my dearest, I could not love you so!”
If you don’t think such lines (and they are more beautiful still in their original Spanish) need to be set to music, you must have missed the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s premiere of Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall over the weekend. But that’s OK -- there will surely be other performances, and a recording is all but inevitable.
These songs are here to stay. And so, clearly, is the love between the composer and his muse, the incomparable mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, for whom they were written.
The premiere came in two radically different guises. The Friday performance was part of a Philharmonic First Nights series devoted to Peter Lieberson. On Saturday afternoon, Esa-Pekka Salonen paired Lieberson’s graceful, exquisitely shaded love poems to his second wife with Shostakovich’s gargantuan hate poem to his political nemesis. The Tenth Symphony was written in the wake of Stalin’s death.
For once, the Philharmonic dispensed with condescension for a First Nights program -- no skits. Instead, it consisted of an interesting discussion between Lieberson and Carnegie Hall’s Ara Guzelimian, with Salonen and the orchestra on hand to play examples. Lieberson is, Guzelimian noted, royalty -- the son of Columbia Records head Goddard Lieberson and ballerina Vera Zorina.
Peter Lieberson told of growing up with Stravinsky coming to Thanksgiving dinner, of watching Thelonious Monk record in the studio, of attending every major Broadway opening in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. His father once gave Stravinsky a tax manual. When asked if he had read it, Stravinsky said, “Yes, my dear, and I cried on every page.”
An enormously swelled head and an eclectic palate would seem the inevitable outcome of such an upbringing. Lieberson, however, turned to the lean, unfashionable musical style of late Stravinsky and became a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism (for many years, he ran a center in Nova Scotia).
Over the years, his music, always expertly crafted and substantial, has lightened somewhat, often colorfully conveying Tibetan legends and principles. On Friday night, Salonen conducted “Drala,” a robust orchestral piece brilliantly evoking a great burst of spiritual energy.
“Neruda Songs” is a new direction for Lieberson. The five love poems are allowed to bloom with deceptively simple music. The orchestra is small, and used with great delicacy. Each line of poetry is rounded into easy melody, while harmonies coddle the text.
When Neruda speaks of “the waters of time” in the fourth song, Lieberson’s music echoes the song “As Time Goes By.” And that echo returns when the mood turns wistful at the end, with the (Buddhist?) sentiment that death is not the death of love. It simply changes lips. The tone becomes that of Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” without the self-pitying.
This is, of course, deeply personal music, and Hunt Lieberson’s performance was like her reading to us her love letters. Each word was given its expression. Others will want to sing these gorgeous songs, but Hunt Lieberson is one of a kind.
Saturday afternoon was a challenge, with the Shostakovich Tenth following the “Neruda Songs.” The 55-minute symphony was powerful, commanding. Shostakovich knew the orchestra, and he was a master of something that Lieberson may have just learned how to do -- write music of immediate expressive power. But there the similarities end.
Others have greater regard for Shostakovich than I do, and on this occasion, his big symphony -- thought to be his best -- proved, after Lieberson, scarily objectionable. If Lieberson shows the way of transcending the ego through love, Shostakovich is, here, nothing but ego, and one as big as a house. The symphony is angry, bitter, tragic. It exults in violence. But it ends with a chest-thumping, triumphant orchestral outburst, the notes based on the composer’s name.
There is love, scholars have discovered, implied in the Tenth as well. Along with the supposed portrait of Stalin at his most vicious, Shostakovich includes, through a private musical code, his lusting after a young student. He got nowhere with her. The symphony, perhaps, was meant to impress her.
What impressed Saturday was the Philharmonic’s playing, from the full-bodied cellos and basses to the radiant brass and some particularly affecting wind solos.
The moment I liked best, though, was after the first movement when Salonen turned angrily to the audience and said, “There is a way to turn your cellphone off. If you can’t find the button, you can pull the battery out.” He then channeled his temper into Shostakovich’s explosive portrait of Stalin. Whatever one thinks of this music, that took the breath away.
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