NY composer Peter Lieberson dies in Israel at 64

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NEW YORK (AP) - American composer Peter Lieberson, who wrote his most inspired songs for his great love, the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, has died at age 64.

Lieberson died Saturday at a hospital in Tel Aviv, Israel, of complications from lymphoma, said Peggy Monastra, an executive at his New York-based publisher, G. Schirmer.

The New York-born composer, who lived in Santa Fe, N.M., was in Israel for medical treatment. He had been diagnosed with the cancer while still mourning his wife’s 2006 death of breast cancer.

Lieberson was a well-established artist years before he met Lorraine Hunt in 1997. His works were being performed by the top U.S. orchestras and soloists including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianists Emanuel Ax and Peter Serkin.

A follower of Tibetan Buddhism, Lieberson came from a generation of composers whose classical music was suffused with references to more popular, audience-friendly styles such as jazz and Broadway.

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.

After Hunt Lieberson’s death at age 52, National Public Radio titled a program about their magical collaboration “Tracing Love’s Arc.” She had canceled most of her concerts in the final months of her life _ except for performances of the “Neruda Songs” with orchestra that her husband wrote for her and she recorded.

The Washington Post called them “one of the most extraordinarily affecting artistic gifts ever created by one lover to another.”

Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine, who conducted a Boston performance, said the music was “a kind of miracle.”

“We didn’t have any idea that we would lose Lorraine so soon,” Levine told NPR. “But Peter could hardly have written a more appropriate piece, in every respect _ to her talent, to her artistry, to her emotion and intelligence and everything that she had _ which was really extraordinary.”

Lieberson once said that her voice gave him chills _ long before they met.

“I realized it was a kind of force that I was listening to,” he said. “It wasn’t the trained voice so much that impressed me _ it was the soul behind it.”

Those who heard his compositions had a similar reaction to his talent.

After a 2006 concert, New York Times critic Allan Kozinn noted Lieberson’s “cohesive, energetic and intensely communicative style … and a current of lyricism and drama that gives this music its warmth and passion.”

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 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. Around then, Lieberson stumbled across a paperback at the airport in Albuquerque, N.M., that would change their artistic lives _ Neruda’s “100 Love Sonnets,” with its shocking pink cover.

In 1999, after divorce, Lorraine Hunt become Lieberson’s second wife, for whom he also composed his 2001 “Rilke Songs.”

Lieberson leaves three children from his first marriage. He also is survived by his third wife and longtime friend, the Tibetan writer Rinchen Lhamo.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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