Amor, Amor . . .
The Liebersons have spent the week with us, and we are the better for it. Peter Lieberson is the son of Goddard, who in his day was one of music’s authentic heroes. Goddard Lieberson was the head of Columbia Records in the 1950s, the early days of the LP, when records were a dominant means of preserving and transmitting the essence of culture. He recorded all the music of Stravinsky, most of Schoenberg, the playing of Glenn Gould, Bernstein’s Mahler, the first music anybody heard by Steve Reich or Pierre Boulez. He didn’t care that Columbia lost its shirt recording esoteric repertory, because it also sold millions of copies of André Kostelanetz and South Pacificand balanced the books that way. Young Peter grew up in a home where Stravinsky came to dinner, and Miles Davis. His mother was the dancer and actress Vera Zorina; you saw her in great old movies (TheGoldwyn Follies,for one) and heard her as the speaker in Stravinsky’s recording of his Perséphone.Inevitably, Peter grew up with a head full of music.
His own influences included Milton Babbitt and Donald Martino and Tibetan Buddhism. A few years ago, Peter Serkin was here to perform a Lieberson piano concerto, which I found full of wheels going around but not very friendly. At one of last week’s concerts at Disney Hall there was another dry-point early work, Lieberson’s Dralafrom 1986. Both had been written before Lorraine Hunt entered Lieberson’s life, and became his wife and his voice. Most of his music that was played here these past two weeks — the songs to texts by Rilke and Neruda, a Piano Quintet and a Horn Concerto — postdate that meeting. It is all a different kind of music, by a composer wondrously transformed by the presence of, let’s say, the greatest dramatic singer of our time. Before Lorraine Hunt Lieberson came onstage to join Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic in her husband’s NerudaSongslast week, I might have wondered why management was devoting that much program time to not that eminent a composer. Half an hour later, I wanted it all to go back and start again.
The poems are love songs by Pablo Neruda to his third wife, Matilde — not ardent mooncalf stuff but aching, middle-aged, wise love full of dark coloration. Lieberson, wisely I think, left them in the original Spanish, allowing Lorraine to draw upon gorgeous, sensuous vocal purples and dark wines for such words as lunaand azul.His orchestra is small and beautifully used, always mirroring the rapture of the words. A recording has been promised; count the days. At a “Green Umbrella” concert a few days later there were more songs for Lorraine, a set of Rilke settings with piano, more complex in musical line and with the rasp of German words rather than the mellow Spanish. But the instrumental works — the Piano Quintet, with its charming echoes of country fiddling, and the jolly bluster of the Horn Concerto, with visiting virtuoso William Purvis to blow it sky-high — were further evidence of the warming and humanizing that seems to have taken hold in Lieberson’s music these past few years, and it isn’t hard to figure out why. Love conquers all.
A proper performance of Franz Schubert’s Winterreisecan move an audience to deep sadness with nothing more than a singer and a pianist delivering the cycle of 24 songs alone on the stage. Alone in a cold attic room, a reader can make his or her way through Johann von Goethe’s SorrowsofYoungWertherwith nothing more than the book in hand, and be driven at the end to suicide — as, apparently, hundreds of impressionable adolescents were in the author’s day. Combining the two as a single entertainment, a venture in redundancy to say the least, might produce, you’d think, a roomful of lemmings.
You would, however, be reckoning without the enterprise of the Long Beach Opera, whose new managerial force, Andreas Mitisek, is apparently out to prove himself ready to maintain high aloft the brave banners of iconoclasm erected by the company’s founding spirits. Against every better judgment I could possibly summon under the circumstances, Mitisek has, indeed, worked out a conflation of these two trajectories down the dark road of heartbreak and self-destruction, and played them off against each other without violating the integrity of either. This all happened not in the company’s usual performing venue at Cal State Long Beach, but in an experimental space, not much larger than this page, at the Edison Theater in downtown Long Beach, where, according to plan, such small-scale LBO productions will occur from time to time.
Mitisek directed, gave the pre-performance talk, hung out with the crowd, did everything but pour coffee; it’s clear that he wants this to be hiscompany, and he’s entitled. He has been fortunate in his principal performer this time, a young baritone named Erik Nelson Werner, who sang the 24 songs of Schubert’s cycle (23 of the 24, actually, since one song was an offstage recording of “Frühlingstraum” for reasons that escape me) quite creditably and interspersed them with forceful spoken excerpts, in English, from Werther’s self-pitying monologues. That much, at least, worked quite well. For staging there was a cluttered attic room, a bed and scattered trash — almost exactly the same set, if anyone cares to remember, as the 1986 Long Beach TalesofHoffmann.Unfeeling, rejecting Lotte was done in dumb show by a dancer, Jennifer Hart Jackson. At the very end, when the dead Werther lay in her lap, she extended one hand in a caress — a small directorial touch that I found extremely moving. Michelle Schumann was the pianist, behind a scrim. Midway, she added part of the slow movement of Schubert’s last piano sonata, which, in this context, became the saddest music in the world — and also, at that moment at least, the most beautiful.