This week we mark the tenth anniversary of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson‘s last appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, as mezzo-soprano soloist in Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 in March 2006.
Michael Tilson Thomas, who conducted those performances, remembers his friend and colleague: “None of us suspected that the Mahler 2 concerts would be Lorraine’s last performances. She was in great spirits and very engaged in the wonder of the whole experience. In between the performances I was playing piano for her in rehearsals of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder which we were to record only a few weeks later. One day we found a precious half hour of free time in the hall and played through the entire piece on stage. No one was present, but the performance that she gave in that empty hall was one of total commitment. It was beyond beautiful. It was confessional in a way that was overwhelming and somehow made me concerned for her. She was giving absolutely everything. After we went through the cycle we talked a bit about the song Liebst du um Schönheit? (Do you love beauty?). She was still finding her way with the song, which speaks so simply, so confessionally about love. I suggested that she think less about the process of singing it. She said, ‘Thank you Michael. I’ve got it. I’ll just feel it. I’ll just be it.’ She sang it again. It was a miracle. That miracle was what Lorraine was all about.”
On April 22, 23, and 24, 1999, she made her debut as soloist (as Lorraine Hunt) with the Orchestra in the world premiere of John Harbison‘s Four Psalms, led by Christoph Eschenbach. Lisa Saffer, Frank Kelley, and James Maddalena also were soloists, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Duain Wolfe.
In the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein praised her “deep expressivity,” and in the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma added that Harbison’s opening prelude—a Hebrew prayer for mezzo-soprano—was “a masterstroke. Making her CSO debut, Hunt was an immediately galvanizing presence. Her voice was powerful and expressive, with gleaming high notes and a dusky, impassioned lower register. Lingering over her final lines, endlessly decorating each syllable as she implored God to transform her dreams, she seemed reluctant to end her conversation with the Lord.”
Hunt Lieberson—she married composer Peter Lieberson later in 1999—returned to Orchestra Hall on March 7, 2006, as soloist in her husband’s Neruda Songs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. David Robertson conducted. (Robertson replaced James Levine, who had been injured in an onstage fall during the previous week.)
“The other happy development was the presence of acclaimed mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She has dropped out of several announced engagements in recent seasons, reportedly due to health issues. That she was on hand as scheduled as soloist in the lush Neruda Songs, written for her by her husband Peter Lieberson, was a kind of musical bonus,” wrote Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Hunt Lieberson is a singer who inhabits the music rather than merely singing it, and her anguish in Sonnet XLV, whose first line reads, ‘Don’t go far off, not even for a day,’ was wrenching. In the final poem, a serene meditation on death, the glowing richness of her seductive mezzo created a sense of profound peace.”
“Lieberson’s orchestral song cycle, a setting of five poems by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, deals with different facets of love: simple adoration, the joy and mystery of nature, the terror of separation, the struggle between yearning and contentment,” added von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “The composer wrote the cycle as an extended love letter to his wife, who sang them affectingly. It is a haunting, exquisitely crafted piece, mostly quiet and reflective, with luminous vocal lines that nestle in the delicate orchestration as one does in the arms of one’s beloved. Hunt Lieberson once more proved why she is America’s most indispensable classical singer. Her voice rose from a smoky sigh to an ecstatic peal in an instant; she didn’t just sing these poignant songs, she became them.”
(Hunt Lieberson had recorded the songs live with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Levine in November 2005. The subsequent release on Nonesuch earned a 2007 Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance.)
The following week, Hunt Lieberson shared the stage with soprano Celena Shafer and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (prepared by Duain Wolfe) on March 16, 17, and 18, 2006, in Mahler’s Symphony no. 2. Tilson Thomas conducted. (You can listen to her performance of the Urlicht here.)
In the Chicago Tribune, von Rhein wrote, “Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s entry in the Urlicht was so soft, so gentle, as to hold the audience at rapt attention. The mezzo-soprano sang as if utterly transfixed, appropriately so to suggest the simple voice of a child who believes she’s in heaven.” And in the Chicago Sun-Times, Delacoma added, “Floating on the air with the warmth of a low, vibrant cello, her opening solo was full of sympathy at humankind’s grief. Like a wise mother comforting an inconsolable child, her voice was soft but firm, never denying the pain of death but holding out the hope of resurrection.”
Less than four months later, Hunt Lieberson lost her battle with breast cancer on July 3, 2006, at the age of 52. Her appearances in Chicago in March were her last public performances.
Countless tributes—including Alex Ross in The New Yorker, Lloyd Schwartz on NPR, and Marc Geelhoed in Slate, among many others—were published. Peter Sellars, one of her most frequent collaborators, described her singing: “Her voice [fills] the room and you don’t know where it’s coming from. . . . It can be piercing and shocking in its intensity, and then this incredible balm of compassion and tenderness, of generosity that is poured out of her voice like a kind of liquid that is there to heal.”
On a personal note . . .
I was lucky not only to be in the audience when Hunt Lieberson sang her husband’s Neruda Songs on March 7 but also to be onstage in the Chorus for the three performances of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.
On March 14, the day before our first session with the Orchestra, the Chorus had a rehearsal with Michael Tilson Thomas—what we call the conductor’s piano rehearsal. Only occasionally do the soloists also attend this rehearsal, so we were surprised to see Hunt Lieberson and Shafer walk in as well. From the Chorus’s usual seats in the terrace (behind the Orchestra) during a performance, we don’t have a great vantage point to hear soloists; but for this rehearsal, they were facing us, just a few feet away.
Tilson Thomas started at the first chorus entrance, “Aufersteh’n.” The mezzo-soprano solo begins a few minutes later and when Hunt Lieberson stood, she didn’t just rehearse—she performed. She threw herself into the music with urgency and demanded our attention, even though the performance didn’t seem to be for us. It was immediate, raw, electric.
During the break, she sat alone, studying her score. I approached her, asked if I could say hello, and expressed how much I had admired her performance of the Neruda Songs. I inquired if the performances in Boston had been recorded, and we talked about the possibility that they would be released. And, of course, I said how much I was looking forward to the Mahler. Throughout, she was very gracious.
To say now that those performances were special is an understatement. The experience and privilege of having shared the stage with her will always remain.