Lieberson’s 'Neruda Songs' and French composers featured in Dec. 5 Symphony concert

Peter Lieberson’s 2005 composition “Neruda Songs” is a work surrounded by triumph and tragedy. Created for his wife, the renowned mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, “Neruda Songs” received accolades from the outset. In November of 2005, it was recorded live by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of James Levine, and the recording earned Hunt Lieberson a 2008 Grammy for Best Classical Vocal Performance.

But tragically, the award was posthumous, for the mezzo had died of breast cancer in 2006 at the age of 52. Not long after, Peter Lieberson was diagnosed with lymphoma and died this past April.

Edward Markward
On December 5, the Rhode Island College Symphony Orchestra will perform “Neruda Songs,” with Edward Markward conducting and with RIC alumna and Metropolitan Opera singer Mary Phillips as the mezzo-soprano soloist. The concert will take place at 8 p.m. in the Auditorium in Roberts Hall.

Also on the program will be Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” Suite No. 2; Satie’s “Gymnopédies Nos. 1 and 3,” orchestrated by Debussy; and Debussy’s “Marche écossaise” (Scottish March).

Markward stumbled upon the “Neruda Songs” last spring and immediately thought of Phillips as the voice he needed to perform them at the college. It happened that Phillips was back in Rhode Island over the summer appearing in the Music on the Hill series. Markward attended the concert and presented her with a CD and a score of the work to help convince her.

Phillips should be primed for a contemporary piece, since she is currently singing in the Met’s production of the Philip Glass opera “Satyagraha.” But Phillips’ diverse repertoire also encompasses Mahler, Wagner, Beethoven and Verdi.

For the orchestra, which is now rehearsing without Phillips, Lieberson’s work does present a special set of challenges.

Markward said, “It’s hard to teach this piece because it is in some ways disjointed for the orchestra. When we’re rehearsing it without the mezzo, you get this accompaniment kind of figure, and every now and then you get to play.

“And it’s quite hard to understand what this is all about when you have so few notes to play. Then all of a sudden you have a lot.“

As to how he deals with the situation, he remarked, “I’m guessing mostly, until I go to New York and work with Mary.”

“Neruda Songs” is based on five poems by the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, each of which reflects a “different face in love’s mirror” as Peter Lieberson stated in the notes to the Boston Symphony recording.

One of the most wrenching moments in the work comes in its final section. Markward said, “In the last song, the sentiment – ‘if I die and you don’t; if you die and I don’t’ – coupled with that beautiful simple, simple melody is just incredible.”

The other major piece on the program is the second suite from Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” a score composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, with choreography by Michel Fokine. Based on a pastoral love story by Longus, a Greek writer of late antiquity, around the third century A.D., the work premiered in 1912 with Vaslav Nijinsky as a leading dancer.

The second suite – the more popular of the two that Ravel extracted for concert performance – is actually the third part of the ballet, consisting of a daybreak scene, a pantomime of Pan wooing the nymph Syrinx, and a Danse général, which took Ravel, one of the most extreme perfectionists among composers, a year to refine.

Mary Phillips
Ravel and Debussy shared a mutual admiration for the work of the highly eccentric Erik Satie, whom Debussy once characterized as “a gentle, medieval musician astray in this century.”

When Ravel performed some of Satie’s early pieces at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendante in January 1911, it helped changed the perception of Satie’s music, and he came to be seen as a harmonic forerunner of Impressionism.

Satie composed three “Gymnopédies” in 1888. The first and third of these simple, almost ambient-sounding pieces were orchestrated by Debussy in 1896. Debussy claimed that the second could not be orchestrated.

That simplicity is one of the reasons Markward chose the “Gymnopédies.”

He remarked, “Satie was sort of a reaction to the overblown styles of Debussy and Ravel, so it’s the simplification of that sound. I use the Satie as the germ of what we later play in the Ravel.”

Debussy’s “Marche écossaise” (1891) is not typical of the composer, notably because of its touch of Scottish flavor. The work was commissioned by an American diplomat of Scottish ancestry in honor of his clan, and was originally composed for piano duet and later orchestrated.

Markward summarized “Marche ecossaise,” saying, “It’s starts off rather atmospherically, with a low rumble, with strings and woodwinds, and then it builds to a rather brisk tempo. There is a slower middle section that is rather tuneful – it’s based on a Scottish folk song – and then the end becomes rather rousing.”

That seems quite a lot for a six-minute piece, but in a way it serves as an emblem for the evening, with the serenity of Satie, the lushness of Ravel and the shifting emotional landscape of Lieberson.

General admission is $10, and $5 for seniors and non-RIC students. Free for RIC students, faculty and staff. For further information, call (401) 456-8144, or visit