Peter Lieberson and his wife, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, for whom he composed Neruda Songs.
Neruda Songs, a cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra by Peter Lieberson, has won the 2008 Grawemeyer Award. The University of Louisville School of Music, which administers the $200,000 prize, announced the news last night.
Born in 1946 to Columbia Records executive Goddard Lieberson and ballerina Vera Zorina, Peter Lieberson received a bachelor's degree from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Brandeis; among his teachers were Milton Babbitt, Donald Martino and Charles Wuorinen. He first attracted widespread attention as a composer with his 1983 Piano Concerto, written for Peter Serkin and the Boston Symphony. Lieberson taught at Harvard University from 1984-88 and has otherwise devoted himself to composition. At the same time, he has had a parallel career as a devotee and teacher of Tibetan Buddhist practice: from 1988 to 1994 he served as international director for the meditation program Shambhala Training.
Lieberson met Lorraine Hunt in 1997 when she was cast in the world premiere production of his Ashoka's Dream at Santa Fe Opera; they married in 1999. In an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal published today, the composer recalled how he had wanted to set Neruda's love sonnets for his wife ever since he first encountered them — and how his wife used to read the poems to him in Spanish.
140 works were submitted for consideration for the 2008 Grawemeyer Award for music composition, according to the Courier-Journal; a jury including composer Sebastian Currier (winner of the 2007 Grawemeyer for music), conductor Christopher Austin and Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed selected finalists, and a panel of non-professional listeners chose Lieberson's work as the winner, according to the paper.
"There was a lot of unanimity of agreement at every level" regarding Neruda Songs, according to composer and University of Louisville professor Marc T. Satterwhite. "This was one of those years where it was pretty clearly, in terms of the judges' estimation, 'the piece,'" he said to the Courier-Journal.
Lieberson is now working on a second Neruda cycle, this time for baritone. Yet he is himself now battling lymphoma. "How much time I have — who knows?" he told the paper. "That's the way human life is ... One who was left behind often becomes ill as well."