There are certain emotions that cannot be expressed with words alone. Feelings like love and loss are too complex, too deep, too connected to the heart to be merely spoken. These inexpressible emotions are what the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra explored in its program Songs of Love and Loss, which took place in Stewart Theatre on the campus of NC State University. With great repertoire and delightfully sensitive playing, the orchestra surpassed the boundaries of language and expressed the inexpressible during this concert.

The first half of the program featured pieces written by the composers as gifts for the women they loved. The first was Richard Wagner‘s “Siegfried Idyll.” As Peter Askim, director of RCCO, discussed prior to starting the piece, Wagner composed “Siegfried Idyll” as a surprise birthday gift to his new wife. Early in the morning on his wife’s birthday, Wagner assembled a thirteen-piece chamber orchestra on the staircase of their house and woke his wife with the premiere of this composition. Listening to this symphonic poem is like hearing a love letter read. Wagner includes various motives in the piece that have specific meaning to him, such as the lullaby played by the oboe and the birdsong motif meant to represent the couple’s recently-born son. It is a deeply personal piece, and the orchestra played it rightly so. String, brass, and woodwind musicians all captured the tenderness and intimacy of the music with their warm tone and vibrato. Meaningful for more than its beauty, the performance succeeded in capturing a piece of the inexpressible sensation that is love.

If the first piece on the program explored a familiar, tender, early morning type of love, the second captured a more mysterious and passionate side of love. Howard Hanson composed his Serenade, Op. 35, for flute, harp, and strings, as a wedding present. The stunningly clear and airy timbres of the harp and flute give the piece a magical, otherworldly feel that matches its meandering melodies. Winifred Garrett, principal harpist for the Fayetteville Symphony, and Erin Munnelly, principal flutist for the Durham Symphony Orchestra, were the two highly esteemed and experienced soloists for this piece. Their performances, with that of the string players, were quite simply gorgeous. Munnelly played as though each note in the piece was a gem, her articulation and intonation consistently excellent. To hear a piece in which harp is prominently featured is a rare treat, and to hear a performance with the quality of Garrett’s playing is especially wonderful. The audience clung to the music, clearly aware that they were experiencing something special.

The last in the series of three love-focused pieces on the program, Edward Elgar‘s “Salut d’amour,” Op. 12, is perhaps the best known of the three. Elgar presented it right before proposing to the woman he loved. It is a short composition with a simple structure and a charming melody. The orchestra played as though singing it, filling Stewart Theatre with music easily identified as that written by a person in love. Because the meaning behind the music was so easily identifiable, it was perhaps the most relatable of the pieces on the program, and many audience members sat with fond smiles on their faces for its duration.

A major feature on the program was the world premiere of Askim’s own composition titled “Autumn Landscape: 3 Songs on Hồ Xuân Hương Poetry.” There were many layers to the creation of this work of art, as Askim explained, making it quite an extraordinary work. As the title indicates, he was inspired to create this composition after stumbling across the writing of Vietnamese poet Hồ Xuân Hương. Askim said in his introduction of the piece that the poems were so gorgeous that he just heard sounds when reading them. John Balaban, NC State University faculty member and winner of the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture award for his work, translated Hương’s texts upon which Askim wished to base his compositions. Balaban gave a brief presentation about Hương at the concert, describing her as an opinionated woman living in an extremely male dominated society during a period of calamity and political turmoil. Her poems are beautiful and were widely known, even during her lifetime, but they were also unconventional and controversial due to the political and social beliefs they expressed. Regardless of the controversy surrounding her poetry, Hương was clearly a master poet. Hearing her words set to music by a master composer, sung by the exceptionally talented Jennifer Beattie and accompanied by the RCCO, was a one-of-a-kind experience.

One may wonder how the composition fit into the “love and loss” program theme. First, Askim’s dedicated the composition to his and Balaban’s wives. The composition also kept with the theme of the program in that it served as a remarkable demonstration of music as a language, capable of expressing a person’s deepest thoughts and feelings. It was incredible how singing Hương’s poetry and the instrumental accompaniment transformed the words on the page into something new and alive. One could practically hear the raindrops slapping banana leaves in the exotic melodies and harmonies of “Autumn Landscape.” “Confession (I)” brought to life a gray, bitter sky and the clattering of grief’s rattle through the vibraphone’s strikes, the cymbal’s crashes, and the pizzicato of the strings. The flowing violin parts and the particularly gorgeous solos played by the concertmaster in “Spring-Watching Pavilion” gave the sensation of discovering nirvana that Hương describes so beautifully in her poem. Adding to the emotional impact of the composition was Beattie’s incredible performance! Her stunningly powerful voice, in-character body language, and facial expressions perfectly portrayed the spirit of Hương’s poetry. It was an experience like none other to see words translated to music and then into emotion the way that they were during this premiere of Askim’s composition. One can only hope for a second opportunity to hear the piece in the near future.

All in all, the program lived up to its promise of demonstrating music’s power to express the inexpressible. Those in attendance would likely agree the performance touched on something deeply personal and stirred difficult to reach places in hearts. This was truly a genius program. The Raleigh Civic Symphony will perform another concert on Sunday, April 14 celebrating the Women’s Suffrage Movement. See our calendar for details and be sure to add that and NC State University’s other upcoming performances to your calendar!