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NSO Celebrates Love

For what can be more wretched than the wretch who has no pity upon himself, who sheds tears over Dido, dead for the love of Aeneas, but who sheds no tears for his own death in not loving thee, O God, light of my heart, and bread of the inner mouth of my soul, O power that links together my mind with my inmost thoughts?

The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book I (trans. Albert C. Outler)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca ("A Galeotto was the book and he that wrote it. / That day we read in it no further.")
Thus Augustine of Hippo described the dangers of the books he loved as a young man, books that celebrated legendary lovers like Dido and Aeneas. This was likely in Dante's mind when he wrote the fifth canto of Inferno, where he speaks to Francesca da Rimini in the circle of the lustful. Francesca refuses to accept any blame for her adulterous affair with her husband's brother, Paolo, speaking instead of the danger of a book they read together, the legend of Guinevere and Lancelot. Swirled around in the foul whirlwind with the great lovers is Dido herself, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Tristan and Isolde, much later the subject of Richard Wagner's music drama. Christoph Eschenbach's first subscription concert of his third season with the National Symphony Orchestra, called "Celebrating Love" and heard on Friday night, brought together these and other legendary lovers. Refracted through the lens of the 19th century, however, this music does not focus on the destructive ends of these great loves but on the poignancy of love's power over human hearts.

None of these stories of love ended happily, beginning with the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. This will be a season for Wagner, as we are coming up on the bicentenary of his birth next May, and Eschenbach is featuring his music this week and next. The story of the doomed love between the Irish princess and the nephew of the man she was to marry was told many times before Wagner, a love that was represented as enduring even after death by Marie de France in the chèvrefeuille vine that entwined the lovers' twin graves ("bele amie, si est de nus: / ne vus sanz mei, ne mei sanz vus!"). Eschenbach took this music at an astonishingly slow tempo, with the chromatic non-resolutions of the famous half-diminished seventh chord -- the obsessive motto heard over and over in Lars van Trier's Melancholia -- stretched out to the breaking point in the winds and brass. The slow introduction served to point up the contrast with some of the faster, more urgent music later, but most of the pacing was stately, even funereal, making for some shiver-inducing sweeps of sound.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, National Symphony Orchestra give lush tribute to love (Washington Post, October 5)

Emily Cary, Making 'Neruda Songs' her own (Washington Examiner, October 3)

Katherine Boyle, ‘Neruda Songs’ at the Kennedy Center: A lost love’s legacy (Washington Post, September 27)

Donald Munro, Clovis High grad Kelley O'Connor to open Fresno Philharmonic season (Fresno Bee, September 22)
The second half was devoted to Tchaikovsky blockbusters, like the Wagner both programmed by the NSO within the last five years. Dante would not have placed Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in the second circle with the lustful, since they were married in secret -- it would be the Wood of the Suicides in the seventh circle for both of them. Although the Russian composer's overture-fantasia on Romeo and Juliet began with a brooding, tense quality, some of the fast sections and the famous love theme were a little helter-skelter in terms of ensemble cohesion. The results seemed much more solidly rehearsed with Tchaikovsky's tone poem Francesca da Rimini, op. 32, with tightly coordinated playing from all sections. Tchaikovsky, who knew something about the negative impact giving in to one's passions could bring, devoted much of the piece to the musical description of the screams and cries of hell, the dark blast of the whirlwind that swirls Francesca and the other lustful souls about. Francesca's plaintive words are expressed in a melancholy clarinet theme, later taken up by flute and cellos, but as is so often the case Tchaikovsky, not knowing when to stop, dragged the work's conclusion out far too long.

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P. Lieberson, Neruda Songs, L. Hunt Lieberson, Boston Symphony Orchestra, J. Levine
What to make of the inclusion of Peter and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, represented by the composer's Neruda Songs written for his singer wife, in this company of damned lovers? We covered the song cycle's premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, both here and in Boston, when Hunt Lieberson herself sang it. Within a matter of months, Hunt Lieberson was dead, followed by her husband just last year, both after protracted battles with different types of cancer, which had seemed to be in remission. The Spanish poems, by Pablo Neruda, are thus now much more poignant than they were at the time of the premiere: "My love, if I die and you do not die, / My love, if you die and I do not die, / let's not give pain more territory." Lieberson's harmonic idiom is lush, mostly triadic, even Straussian at times, with hints of Latin beats and percussion in the fourth song -- used in a way that is original, not just a simple recycling of popular music like what one hears in the music of Osvaldo Golijov. Most of the orchestration is transparent, but Eschenbach took care to keep the volume extra soft so as not to cover the smaller voice of mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, whom we first admired in the (amplified) role of Lorca in Golijov's Ainadamar. O'Connor had an unenviable task standing in for Hunt Lieberson in this piece, and while she sang the songs well, it was hard not to miss the irreplaceable LHL.

This concert repeats this evening, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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