Peggy Pearson: Remembering Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

Artistic Director Peggy Pearson was a longtime friend and colleague of the late, great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. In 1996, she invited Ms. Lieberson to perform Bach's Cantata BWV 170 ("Vergnügte Ruh', beliebte Seelenlust") with the Greenleaf Chamber Players. The performance was recorded, but that recording was never released to the public. Ms. Lieberson passed away in 2006 at the too-young age of 52, and this year, with permission from the Lieberson estate, Ms. Pearson decided to release the private recording from 1996. The estate and the Greenleaf musicians are graciously allowing us to donate all proceeds from sales of this recording to the Winsor Music education program. We will be releasing the recording at our Thanksgiving Concert on November 30th, when Young Artist Rebecca Printz will be performing the same Cantata BWV 170 with Peggy Pearson, Gabriela Diaz, Shaw Pong Liu, Shira Majoni, Rafael Popper-Keizer, Tony D'Amico, and Peter Sykes. The recording will also be available for digital download on our website.  

Peggy shared stories, memories and photographs of Lorraine and this project with us this past week, and it's our privilege to be able to share them with you today. 

Tell me about the Greenleaf Chamber Players.

The Greenleaf Chamber Players was a group I started at SUNY Purchase back in the ‘80s. I had been playing in the Mozart operas that Peter Sellars directed at SUNY Purchase; I was the orchestra manager, and I hired musicians from both Boston and New York to play in the orchestra. I became friends with the assistant director of that festival, who later became the executive director at the Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase, and he asked me to form a chamber group. I ran it for about five years, and it was great! I got to hire a good mixture of New York and Boston players: Daniel Phillips and Anna Lim, violins, Lois Martin, viola, Fred Sherry, cello, Jordan Frazier, bass, and Ed Brewer, harpsichord.

Tell me about the circumstances that led to this recording.

It was part of the chamber series there at Purchase in 1997. This was one of two programs that I also performed at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. They were both built around Bach; the first was with Dawn Upshaw, and the second one was with Lorraine. This program had a piece by John Harbison, the Bach cantata BWV 170, a Bach trio sonata, and a piece by Mario Davidovsky. There are two versions of this cantata: the first features the organ, which is more commonly performed. The other, which you hear on our recording, features the oboe d’amore, which I chose because the 92nd Street Y program was an oboe recital.

How did Lorraine get involved with this concert?

I knew her from Emmanuel. She started there as a violist, sang there for a number of years, and she was in Don Giovanni during the festival at SUNY Purchase. I knew her from weekly cantatas at Emmanuel, and I had been on tour with her; we did a production that Craig Smith (Founding Artistic Director of Emmanuel Music) and Peter Sellars put together based on Bach arias and Little Mahagonny by Kurt Weill [The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny]. Lorraine was always incredibly well-prepared; it was exciting, intense, and always a joy working with her.

You said in your liner notes that you feel that this cantata was written for Lorraine’s voice and that she’s in her element here. Can you elaborate?

This cantata is about sin and our need to renounce sin in order to be at peace with the world. As Ryan Turner (current Artistic Director of Emmanuel Music) says: “The journey begins in a place of true concord, evolving through a statement renouncing the sins against the word of God, and eventually concluding with the believer’s desire to die and thus be free of all sin.” The cantata is full of repose, anxiety and exuberance — perfect for Lorraine!

Photo credit: Julian Bullitt

Photo credit: Julian Bullitt

What other memories do you have of Lorraine?

There was another tour that we did of two Bach cantatas, 82 and 199 — there were actually two tours of that program. During the second one, she was very sick, and clearly in pain on stage and off. It was heartbreaking to watch. She had to cancel the last few performances because she was in so much pain. I remember going to her hotel and sitting in the lobby for hours, trying to figure out what to write in a note to her, just to tell her how much it meant to have had the opportunity to play with her.

I’m sure that many of Lorraine’s fans will be so grateful that you are sharing your memories of her with us as well as this incredible recording. You also shared this picture of you and Lorraine rafting with a group of friends. Could you tell us some of the story behind that photo?

This was from a day trip organized by a friend of Lorraine's, Roger Kaza. He was playing horn in the Boston Symphony at the time, so most of the people in that picture are horn players from the BSO. We could have wiped out the entire horn section on that trip, and we nearly did, too, we tipped over at one point! Roger was sitting in the front of the raft, and he had rigged up a waterproof camera and a wire with a clicker so he could take pictures as we went through the rapids. Of course he aimed for every big hole. When the water goes over a rock there’s a “hole” or hydraulic downstream of it — a good place to lose control! Roger was looking for an exciting ride, but it was a little too exciting for my taste: you can see that in all of our faces.


Lorraine laughing.jpeg

What do you want us to take away from hearing this recording? How do you want Lorraine to be remembered?

A lot of people have an image of Lorraine as being very intense — she worked incredibly hard, and I always had the feeling that she spent most of the day of a performance just getting in the zone and preparing herself, especially once she was sick — but I also remember her as fun loving and exuberant. She had a cackle of a laugh that you could hear four blocks away. I took her to our house at the end of Duxbury beach one September, and I have a lasting image of her body-surfing in the ocean after a storm — I like to remember her glee and laughter as we went crashing into the shore.