Celebrating the music of Richard Wagner (1813-83) in this 200th anniversary year of his birth, the Duke Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Harry Davidson, presented an all-Wagner program in the bodaciously renovated Baldwin Auditorium. Featured guest artist was Irene Roberts, a mezzo soprano who made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the 2012-13 season, appearing in Le Nozze di Figaro and Parsifal. She has also appeared with San Francisco Opera, Syracuse Opera, Lyric Opera Baltimore, and others.

The concert opened with the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin. Wagner achieved a uniquely mystical mood by using just violins, subdivided, in the opening passage. Gradually the music swells as woodwinds, then lower strings, and finally brasses are added. It results in a masterful and glorious crescendo which, after reaching a glorious climax, fades back to violins alone at the conclusion, thus preparing the audience for the mystical, tragic romance that lies ahead. Davidson led the orchestra in a measured and controlled performance of this magical music.

Next on the program was the five Wesendonck Lieder. In 1857 while working on Siegfried, the third opera (or music drama as he preferred to call them) of the ambitious Ring cycle, Wagner came under the patronage of a very wealthy silk merchant named Otto Wesendonck. He was invited to take advantage of the guest house on the Wesendonck estate near Zurich, which he did. He also became passionately involved with Otto’s attractive wife, Mathilde. Whether this affair was consummated in physical intimacy or whether it was purely platonic has never been proven one way or the other. The letters between the two reveal a deep level of sharing, and the affair had a powerful influence on Wagner’s creative process. He became obsessed with the love story of Tristan and Isolde and after finishing the second act of Siegfried; he set it aside and began working in earnest on Tristan.

Somewhere around this time he set five poems Mathilde had written, first for soprano with piano accompaniment and later as a study for Tristan, he said, in full orchestral scoring. Two of the songs contain music he later used in Tristan and the others are of the same stuff: lush orchestral scoring, chromatic melodies of mystical longing, and haunting beauty. The five songs – “Der Engel,” “Stehe still!,” “Im Treibhaus,” “Schmerzen,” and “Träume” – were sung with tenderness and compassion by Roberts, demonstrating her considerable talents and a powerful but nicely tempered voice. The orchestra was well-balanced and was led by Davidson to bring to the fore just the right spots. The delicate ending of “Träume” was especially impressive. The solos by principal chairs in the orchestra were excellent.

After an intermission, the orchestra launched into the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. If there is an opposite to the slowly unfolding, mystical music of the Act I prelude, it is this exuberant music that celebrates the wedding of Lohengrin and Elsa. The orchestra played it with all the enthusiasm and charm of youth, with accurate and crisp entrances and nimble ensemble. Coincidently, the music that follows is what we are familiar with as “Here Comes the Bride.” It is actually not a wedding processional but a sort of hymn of blessing on the marriage.

The program concluded with the Prelude and “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. Here, at the beginning of the prelude, we find the most famous chord in the history of music; the “Tristan Chord.” It is abchord of tension, a chord that begs for resolution. It is like singing “shave and a haircut…” and stopping there. But it does not resolve; rather it moves to another chord of tension and on and on throughout the opera. Thus the tension mounts to an almost unbearable state until, finally at the end of the opera, after Tristan dies and Isolde prepares to join him in death, the chord is resolved to an overwhelming, glorious E major.

Schopenhauer has won! The philosopher, who had a powerful influence on Wagner’s creativity, posited in The World as Will and Representation that all of life’s woes are due to longing, stemming from desires that would not and could not be fulfilled. The only way out of life’s misery is to squelch all desires, he says. So in Tristan und Isolde, Wagner presents us with a story in which fulfillment of the intense desire of physical passion is impossible yet is resolved through the ultimate taming of desire in death. In the end Tristan and Isolde are united eternally in death. This is the “Liebestod,” – the Love Death  – wherein the Tristan chord is finally resolved, gloriously.

Roberts gave an inspired and impressive performance. Overall, the balance between the orchestra and soloist was superb. The orchestra was inspired as well and played as splendidly as I have heard them. It was a gorgeous and passionate performance enhanced by the fine acoustics of Baldwin Auditorium, and the audience responded with long and vigorous applause.

Kudos to Roberts, Davidson, the talented students in the orchestra, and all who made this concert possible.

The Duke Symphony Orchestra will perform next March 5, featuring 2013-14 Student Concerto Competition winner Emily Tan performing the first movement of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor; and then April 5 – Beethoven’s 9th, with the Duke Chorale and the Choral Society of Durham. Stay in touch through the CVNC events calendar at CVNC.org.