Winter harvest

Emmanuel’s memorial to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; Angelika Kirchschlager at Jordan Hall; Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and El Niño at the BSO
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 12, 2006

FEW SINGERS WERE MORE HUMAN Hunt Liberson singing her husband’s Neruda Songs with the BSO in November 2005.

“I don’t want to be here,” soprano Susan Larson lamented in her moving eulogy to her old friend and colleague Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Those who crowded into the large sanctuary of Emmanuel Church for Emmanuel Music’s memorial tribute to the beloved singer who died far too young last summer felt the same dismay. “Wise people have said no one is irreplaceable,” Larson began. “They are wrong.”

Retired Boston Globe classical music critic Richard Dyer and composer John Harbison seconded Larson’s remarks, celebrating Hunt Lieberson’s un-diva-ish humility and wacky sense of humor, her memorable laugh (Larson described it as “something between a bray and a squawk”), the thrilling warmth and beauty of her voice, her electrifying artistry (“so chock-full of ideas and heat and intimacy and surprise”). People nodded at Larson’s description of the way Hunt Lieberson “colored the words like a jazz singer, or the way she could start a tone from nowhere — or from inside her mind, or from another planet. How she could use her mournful sotto voce to slide inside the orchestral texture, becoming a bass flute or a viola or a French horn, then blaze out over the tutti in full human cry.”

Full human cry. Few singers were more human. Or worked harder at becoming so. Dyer remembered being in the Emmanuel Church vestibule and hearing her voice emerge from behind a closed rehearsal-room door, repeating and repeating a musical phrase until she got it to sound the way she wanted it to. He also tallied the extraordinary range of her career, both in New England and around the world. And Harbison, reluctant to speak about their numerous collaborations, spoke instead about the devotion between Hunt Lieberson and her husband, Harbison’s friend composer Peter Lieberson.

When Lorraine Hunt first came to Boston from California, she played viola in the Emmanuel Music Orchestra, then sang Bach cantatas and Schütz motets in the Emmanuel Chorus, all under the direction of Craig Smith. The memorial program began with the sorrowful slow movement of Schubert’s C-major Quintet, with the Lydian String Quartet (Diane Pettipaw sitting in for second violinist Judith Eissenberg, and former Lydian founding member Rhonda Rider playing the “extra” cello). Smith led oboeist Peggy Pearson (Hunt Lieberson’s other close Bach collaborator) and the Emmanuel Orchestra in two soul-piercing Bach chorale preludes and the Emmanuel Chorus in Schütz’s five-part setting of Psalm 116, “Das ist mir Lieb” (“It is pleasing to me”), which Harbison described as Hunt Lieberson’s favorite piece of music. The tribute closed with a recording from 1995 of Harbison conducting Hunt Lieberson in a brief Bach aria, “Wie furchtsam wankten meine Schritte” (“How fearfully my steps wander”), from Cantata No. 33, with that irreplaceable voice emerging from nowhere — or from inside her mind, or from another planet.

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