The New Orchestra of Washington presents a love so powerful it hurts in ‘A Poet’s Love: It’s Complicated’

US premiere of composer Christian Jost’s 'Dichterliebe' explores the nature of suffering in art and in love.

While much of the city is abuzz with romantic romping this Valentine’s Day weekend, the New Orchestra of Washington will concern itself with the transformative power of love and loss when it presents the US premiere of Christian Jost’s Dichterliebe, part of A Poet’s Love: It’s Complicated! at Live! at 10th and G.

Christian Jost. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Christian Jost. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Berlin-based composer’s work reimagines Robert Schumann’s 1840 Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) song cycle based on lyric poems by the German Romantic Heinrich Heine. Jost’s original intention was to create a modern vehicle to showcase the interpretive skills of his mezzo-soprano wife, the late Stella Doufexis. Before Jost could fulfill this vision, however, Doufexis died of cancer at age 47, in late 2015, prompting the grieving composer to tunnel through Schumann’s version of the work for answers about the nature of suffering in art and in love.

“I wanted to enter, even drill, a way into a particular state in myself,” Jost says, referring to his setting of the work’s ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ (I wept in my dream) in a promotional video accompanying the recorded release last year. Jost recycles Schumann’s original piano accompaniment into a pounding, even throbbing, heartbeat. “The violence of this piece is the pain,” Jost says in the video.

NOW Executive Director Grace Cho explained that Jost’s re-working of Schumann’s original keeps the vocal line and key, meaning it can be sung by a tenor or a soprano, in theory.

In place of the piano, Jost’s work features a modern chamber ensemble. Schumann’s preludes, interludes and postludes are expanded in Jost’s work, doubling the length of the original from about 30 minutes to approximately one hour. For this weekend’s concerts, American tenor Vale Rideout will perform Jost’s version with members of NOW, following a performance of the original sung by American mezzo-soprano Devony Smith and accompanied on piano by NOW Conductor Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez.

Schumann’s lyrical setting of Heine’s pretty and sweet poems are a staple of the vocal repertory, especially for male voices. Heine’s words are typical of the Romantic Era — aflame with longing, but absent the glimpse of a heart burnished by the fire of loss. In Jost’s treatment, the words are the same, but, especially in ‘Ich grolle nicht’ (I bear no grudge), where he resets Schumann’s repetitive chords with a driven tempo performed by a string quartet, flute and clarinet along with a harp, marimba, vibraphone, piano and celesta, Jost shatters the silliness of an admirer bemoaning unrequited love into the fragmented bewilderment of a lover whose actual love is now irrevocably gone from his life: “I bear no grudge, but my heart breaks.”

The music moaning from the cello, clarinet and harp becomes dreamy and evocative — but of what? Jost is ambiguous in his program notes. Is it a dream about the original love or a dream of a memory of what was?

“The personal life and biography of the composer shouldn’t necessarily be decisive factors when it comes to the quality of a piece,” Jost says in the video. “But then again, none of us lives in a vacuum, uninfluenced by things that, existentially, are deeply moving, destructive and totally incomprehensible.”

If Schumann’s original Dichterliebe is the voice of a poetic young lover’s calls for nature to sanctify his desires, Jost’s work details the sound of heartbreak when that call has been answered, only to be outvoiced by the inevitable call of death.

“The way I see this adaptation is as … a sort of distorted reality of the original, experienced in real time. In other words, it is as if the listener was experiencing a dream about the original,” Hernandez-Valdez told me.

Jost’s Dichterliebe was co-commissioned by Konzerthaus Berlin and the Copenhagen Opera Festival in 2017, and released in April 2019 by Deutsche Grammaphon.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with a brief intermission.

A 7:30 pm pre-concert wine and dessert reception will precede each performance.

A Poet’s Love: It’s Complicated!, presented by the New Orchestra of Washington, performs February 14 and 15, 2020, at Live! at 10th & G, 945 G Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 240-745-6587, or purchase them online.


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