The composer Peter Lieberson, who has died in Tel Aviv aged 64, came with considerable pedigree. His mother was Vera Zorina, the ballet dancer, choreographer and former wife of George Balanchine, and his father was the record industry executive Goddard Lieberson, who became president of Columbia Records in 1956, where he produced the first complete recording of Porgy and Bess and worked with Bernstein, Ormandy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Gould et al.
And this eclectic background flowed into the young Peter’s headspace. He taught himself harmony by unpicking at the harmonic sequences on records by jazz pianist Bill Evans; then he overhauled show tunes he’d heard on his father’s legendary complete cast recordings of musicals like Kiss Me, Kate and South Pacific with tonality-busting jazz chords.
But Goddard also recorded the complete works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern, music that triggered Peter’s imagination more. Later his composition teachers would include 12-tone heavyweights like Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen and Donald Martino, but his subsequent distillation of serial practise was “a generialised means of expression rather than a way to compose,” he said. Lieberson’s personal development then took an unexpected turn: he began to practice Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, and from 1976, studied with Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Serialism and Buddhism are hardly innate bedfellows – but how did this West/East culture clash impact on Lieberson’s music? His 1997 opera Ashoka’s Dream was set in third century India and traced the progress of an emperor who renounces violence after converting to Buddhism. During the rehearsals for his opera, Lieberson met his second wife, the soprano Lorraine Hunt, for whom he composed his Rilke Songs and the piece often considered his masterwork, a set of Neruda Songs. Both works are a world away his rather frosty 1983 Piano Concerto No 1 (recorded by Peter Serkin and Seiji Ozawa); here Lieberson’s lyricism and gestural rhetoric is Straussian. But somehow sincere.