DeShong, Cleveland Orchestra deliver memorable performance of Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs”

By Lawrence Budmen

Elizabeth DeShong performed Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs” Thursday night with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Arsht Center.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 drew a nearly full house to the final season program of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Miami residency Thursday night at the Arsht Center but it was a striking song cycle by Peter Lieberson that proved the concert’s memorable event. Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, a setting of five poems by the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, is a spell-binding rumination on love and loss.

Lieberson wrote the score for his wife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson who premiered the work in 2005. She died the following year after a brave battle with cancer. Five years later the composer himself died of lymphoma.

A student of Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen, Lieberson often wrote craggy, uncompromising atonal scores. His later works, however, reflect more lyrical, accessible creative impulses. Neruda Songs is a sensuous interweaving of a lustrous vocal line with an impressionistic orchestral palette. Echoes of Mahler, Berg, de Falla and Ravel tinge the surface of the score’s rich texture.

The opening song “If your eyes were not the color of the moon” is an extended arioso with prominent roles for horn and harp. Bursts of orchestral color and an ascending vocal part suggest Neruda’s allusion to clouds climbing “The tower of the sky” in the second song.

Voluptuous and impassioned, “Don’t go far off, not even for a day” fades into languid sonorities. Agitated declamation gives way to calm resignation in the fourth section, the final orchestral interjection an unsettling question. “My love, if I die and you don’t” is almost a lullaby, a deeply moving coda to a lustrous, beautifully crafted work. Lieberson’s music matches Neruda’s poetry in creative invention, depth of emotion and romantic fervor. He may have written one of the first classics of the twenty-first century.

While the memory of Hunt Lieberson remains closely attached to the Neruda settings, the gifted young mezzo Elizabeth DeShong gave a mesmeric performance. Exuding glamour, DeShong spanned the score’s wide vocal range in dusky tones, her rich low notes and wild upward leaps strongly enunciated. She conveyed the text’s vivid drama, registering mood swings from nervous agitation to passionate declarations of love and, finally, acceptance of loss. A superb singing actress, DeShong seemed to live the music and text, imparting her own stamp on a remarkable score.

Giancarlo Guerrero, Cleveland’s principal guest conductor for the Miami residency, led a lucid performance. Spotlighting small instrumental groupings,  Lieberson’s orchestral writing is almost like chamber music and Guerrero brought clarity to the wind and harp duos, drew out the Latin coloring from the full ensemble, and wistfully underlined the soft string writing that concludes the cycle. The orchestra played splendidly, evoking Lieberson’s mood painting in vivid hues.

The ensuing performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was less successful. To be sure, there were impressive moments. Played in a straightforward manner, the first movement built in sure intensity, the climaxes registering with maximum impact. The songful Mendelssohnian pulse of the Adagio and the introduction to the choral finale were firmly projected but the Scherzo moved at a slow, heavy clip, sounding weighted down. The finale was episodic, lacking a firm hand and coherent vision. Surprisingly, there was some untidy wind playing and one near mishap in the accompaniment to the bass soloist in the finale.

A first-rate vocal quartet contributed the needed strength. Nicole Cabell’s exquisitely shaded soprano, DeShong’s firm mezzo and Raymond Aceto’s smoothly resonant bass resounded splendidly. Garrett Sorenson’s strong, virile tenor encompassed the martial solo without strain. The combined forces of the Master Chorales of South Florida and Tampa Bay made a mighty sound but proved wanting in more varied dynamics, the sopranos showing strain in the high tessitura. While receiving an enthusiastic ovation, this Beethoven Ninth only fitfully exuded the joy and mystery that underline one of Beethoven’s most original creations.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Arsht Center. 305-949-6722

Posted in Performances

5 Responses to “DeShong, Cleveland Orchestra deliver memorable performance of Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs””

  1. Posted Mar 15, 2013 at 4:12 pm by BP

    We were there last night as well and were likewise disappointed by the 9th. We found it sorely lacking in passion, precision, and power, despite the roars of appreciation from seemingly all of our fellow audience members. We appreciate the chance to complement our personal experience of such performances with your knowledgeable reviews.

  2. Posted Mar 17, 2013 at 9:33 am by Mario

    Thank you for the review. I was not able to attend this performance. I wish the review would give more information specifically why they felt the Orchestra was lacking in the 9th. It seems like the reviewer focused much more on the vocals.

  3. Posted Mar 19, 2013 at 10:33 am by Jack Thompson

    I cannot disagree with the Mr. Budmen more. My wife and I and another couple attended the Saturday March 16 performance. We found Ms. DeShong’s performance technically adroit but dramatically dead. Yes, she hit the notes, and with absolutely no discernible passion. None. And we were 30 feet from her. It was as if she were singing the menu at Barton G.

    As to the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, it was flat-out thrilling. I have no earthly idea what the reviewer here is talking about. The choir was spot-on, the soloists were vibrant, and the conducting was engagingly exuberant. Maybe the reviewer has his Ipod earphones inserted. In my opinion, he reviewed two performances that none of the rest of us heard.

  4. Posted Mar 19, 2013 at 10:38 am by Jack Thompson

    And one further thought: What in the world is “one near mishap.” There was either a mishap or there was not. More imaginings by the reviewer.

  5. Posted Mar 20, 2013 at 7:26 am by Jeremy

    I attended the same day, Thursday, and Mr. Budmen is 100% right, even too benevolent. It was a Ninth lifeless and pedestrian.

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Fri Mar 15, 2013
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