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The Bittersweet Love Story Behind Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs

Ben Dashwood
Mezzo-soprano Kelly O'Connor

A moving song cycle about love has an equally powerful backstory. Captivated by a collection of Pablo Neruda's love poems, composer Peter Lieberson set five of them to be sung by his wife. In 2005, Lorraine Hunt Leiberson premiered, performed and recorded them, but died the next year. As WRTI's Susan Lewis reports, the song cycle, Neruda Songs, lives on. 

Listen on Sunday, June 14th at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1 and Monday, June 15th at 7 PM on WRTI HD-2 when mezzo-soprano Kelly O'Connor sings Neruda Songs with The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert.

Mezzo-soprano Kelly O'Connor had never met Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, but when Kelly was called to step in a performance of The Neruda Songs after Lorraine died, she learned this very personal work from the composer, Peter Leiberson, who had set to music five poems by Pablo Neruda showing the progression of love.

"It's kind of like the sunrise to the sunset of a day, if you will," she says.  "[Starting with] the beginning of love, and the exuberance of those first feelings." 

O'Connor says the third song is her favorite; it expresses the range of passionate emotions involved in losing oneself in love. "It speaks [of feelings] —don't leave me for a day, for a minute, for a second. Within your joy, you still find these moments of panic or sorrow or worry and that's so human." 

Peter Lieberson himself died just five years after his wife. When working with Kelly O'Connor, he gave her his blessing to carry "the torch." She's now been singing the songs for close to a decade.

"I've been lucky that I've sung them while Peter was in the audience, and while he decided to surrender them to me when he's passed on ... and to me, now they are together enjoying them."

"Peter was always very optimistic about love," she says, pointing to the fifth song in the cycle, and the poetry that says, "our love will just change lips and change lands and will never die."

"It was such a beautiful representation of their love story."

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.