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A longtime student of Buddhism, Peter Lieberson explored the concept of Drala in his dynamic, colorful work of the same name. Drala was commissioned and premiered by the BSO under Seiji Ozawa.

Peter Goddard Lieberson was born in New York City on October 25, 1946, and died in Tel Aviv, Israel, on April 23, 2011. He composed Drala between January and May 1986 on commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, music director, dedicating the score to his teacher Chögyam Trungpa, to his brother Jonathan Lieberson, and to Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ozawa led the BSO in the world premiere performances in October 1986, until this week the orchestra’s only performances of the piece.

The score of Drala calls for a large orchestra of 3 flutes (all doubling piccolo; 2nd doubling alto flute), 2 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (6 players: I. vibraphone, crotales, high cymbals, sleigh bells, high, medium, and low tam-tams; II. glockenspiel, medium cymbals, 3 drums; III. glockenspiel, snare drum, low cymbals, triangle; IV. 3 suspended cymbals and 2 wood blocks; V. tubular bells, tambourine, 3 rototoms, cuica (Brazilian friction drum); V. bass drum, xylophone, 3 temple blocks), harp, piano, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Drala is about 16 minutes long.

Peter Lieberson’s first work with orchestra, composed when he was 34, was his Piano Concerto, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for its centennial. Lieberson was the youngest of the twelve commissioned composers, who also included the already venerable Roger Sessions (his last orchestra work, the Concerto for Orchestra, which won the Pulitzer Prize), as well as Leonard Bernstein, Olly Wilson, and John Harbison. Peter Serkin played the premiere of Lieberson’s concerto in April 1983, led by Seiji Ozawa, who was so impressed that he immediately requested a new work for the BSO. Three years later this became the symphony-like Drala.

Lieberson grew up immersed in the arts. His father Goddard, also a composer, had a profound impact on classical music as a producer and a longtime president of Columbia Records, where he championed contemporary music. His wife, Peter’s mother Vera Zorina, was a ballet dancer and choreographer who had danced with, and was previously married to, George Balanchine. Peter Lieberson was well on his way to becoming a writer when he earned his degree in English literature from New York University, but he was meanwhile preoccupied with music, especially jazz. He took a job with the classical music station WNCN, where the powerhouse American composers Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson were both broadcasters, and through Copland met the composer Milton Babbitt, one of the most formidable minds in modern music and a professor at Columbia University. The two hit it off, sharing an interest in both jazz and modern classical music. Lieberson began studying informally with Babbitt and went on to pursue a graduate degree in music composition at Columbia, studying with Babbitt's younger colleague Charles Wuorinen. Lieberson’s first scores were in the vein of 1960s high modernism, tinged by the energy of jazz. His first acknowledged piece, Flute Variations, was premiered by the eminent composer and flutist Harvey Sollberger. This was followed by his Concerto for Four Groups of Instruments, which was premiered at Tanglewood in 1973. In 1978 he wrote his Tashi Quartet after a year of intense training in Vairayan Buddhism with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987), founder of Shambala International.

Lieberson had become interested in Buddhism serendipitously, having encountered Eastern philosophy while studying with the tirelessly inquisitive Wuorinen. By the mid-1970s as his music career was taking flight, Lieberson was deeply involved in Buddhist philosophy. For Lieberson, Buddhism was a way of establishing a strong foundation for his life, and, as it turned out, for his art. His spiritual and artistic lives became intertwined, leading to Buddhist underpinnings for all of his works from that time onward, including the ostensibly abstract Piano Concerto and the more explicitly titled Drala. The Gesar Legend, the hour-long King Gesar, and the substantial opera Ashoka’s Dream (1997) drew on the rich heritage of Buddhist and Tibetan legend.

It was during the preparations for the production of Ashoka’s Dream at Santa Fe Opera that the composer met his future wife, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who became a further definite influence on his music. For her he wrote his Rilke Songs and the Grawemeyer Award-winning Neruda Songs, co-commissioned by the BSO for its 125th anniversary. Following Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s death of cancer in 2006 at age 52, Peter Lieberson composed the warm, elegiac Songs of Love and Sorrow for baritone and orchestra, also on Neruda texts. The BSO and baritone Gerald Finley gave the premiere performances of that cycle under James Levine’s direction in March 2010. Lieberson himself was already diagnosed with the lymphoma that would cause his death the following year.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned or co-commissioned five of Lieberson’s major orchestral works, including the first piano concerto and the second, Red Garuda, also written for Peter Serkin; the two Neruda song cycles, and Drala. He wrote a third concerto for Serkin as well as concertos for horn, cello, percussion, and viola. He wrote The World in Flower, a large, wide-ranging work for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra for the New York Philharmonic, which premiered it in May 2009.

Lieberson wrote of Drala that the piece is “on a text and the form of a sadhana, or meditation practice, composed by my teacher, the late Chögyam Trungpa.” The title invokes a pre-Buddhist concept studied and written about by Chögyam Trungpa, formed from the Tibetan words “dra,” meaning “opponent,” and “la,” “above.” Drala acknowledges that opposition and enemies to oneself do exist and are necessary to the achievement of transcendence. Drala is also the opening-up of the spirit to become porous to and perceptive of all life, energy, and matter. Lieberson’s Drala is evidently a passage toward understanding this concept, cast as a kind of three-movement symphony with a short, introductory Invocation that reveals the work’s subtle, sparkling sound-world. (The strongly chromatic harmonic and melodic elements are typical of Lieberson’s music of the time. His melodic voice softened and grew warmer, though no less individual, with his experience of opera and other works for voice, including the two Neruda cycles.) The brief first movement proper, Gathering, is propulsive and energetic. Violins primarily spin the very active thread, but the instrumental colors and textures shift constantly. In Offerings and Praises, the longest movement, we move from the idea of collective to the idea of the individual. A long, soulful solo for cello (shared between players) blossoms into a shimmering, almost still orchestral passage before returning briefly to the solo. The finale delivers those offerings to the heavens via the powerful, exuberant windhorse, a legendary creature that acts as messenger between earth and heaven. The frequently recurring rhythmic idea is that of a Tibetan Shambhala victory cry.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.