Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sitting Behind Paul Wolfowitz

Last night a friend invited me to a classical concert that was part of the Embassy Series. Schubert filled the program in honor of his birthday (which was on January 31st 1797). I was on the fence about going, as I'd been unwell, but with a guarantee we could bail at intermission if I was in too much pain, I ventured out to the Austrian Embassy, with thoughts of Salzberg and The Sound of Music.

Wow! The first part of the program were Lieders (German meaning song). A baritone and a pianist. The singer I confess resembled Daffney's boyfriend in that great Billy Wilder film, Some Like It Hot. (That would be Joe E. Brown on the left and Jack Lemmon in drag on the right).

The Austrian Embassy sits on International Court, which is a collection of Embassies, newly built not far from where I used to live in Cleveland Park. The area included embassies for the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt, Israel, Ethiopia and the Austria. Modern and sleek and not very inviting, the large atrium inside was simple but elegant. The ceiling's height afforded space for 5 panels of paintings, related yet distinct. A ribbon of the Austrian flag, red and white, waved and wrinkled and created a sense of wind in bright blue skies and then snowy skies. White foregrounds evoked snow which clearly capped a single Alp on a left side panel, while subtly, over two paintings on the right, appeared a music staff with a treble clef.

As I took in the setting and music and the crowd, the memory of a dream I had had as a girl came to me - an imagined evening such as this, or pretty close to this.

According to the notes, Schubert composed over 600 songs in his 31 years of life. We heard about 10 sung. The program helpfully provided the German lyrics along with the English translations. And the words reminded me of the height of the Romantic movement. (Technically, Schubert bridges the classical period and the romantic period. I thanked my high school, my mother for choosing that high school, for my music history class).

I recognized the melody of Standchen/Serenade and the program noted that this is the best-known serenade in music. But I never knew the words, from a poem by Ludwig Rellstab:

My songs beckon softly
through the night to you;
below in the quiet grove,
Come to me, beloved!

The rustle of slender leaf tips whispers
in the moonlight;
Do not fear the evil spying
of the betrayer, my dear.

Do you hear the nightingales call?
Ah, they beckon to you,
With the sweet sound of their singing
they beckon to you for me.

They understand the heart's longing,
know the pain of love,
They calm each tender heart
with their silver tones.

Let them also stir within your breast,
beloved, hear me!
Trembling I wait for you,
Come, please me!

Reith, a librarian from Georgetown University, quotes Schubert critic and biographer John Reed: "The way the lover's passion swells up at the end of a phrase which echoes teh concluding bars of the strophe, and then declines to a whisper of desire, is as purely sensuous a moment as can be found in all Schubert." Yeah, I liked it.

Another tune I recognized was The Trout, which is actually the 4th movement of a quintet. As the presentation was part of the encore, we were told that the story was of a happy trout, swimming safely and that the waters were deliberately muddied and that in the stir up, the fish was caught. And with that narrative in mind, we listened. Very effective.

The music was very moving, but for me the notes really enriched the evening. Other lyrics that captured my attention, including this: "The only things that change are will and delusion," as I've been discussing with some one I respect whether or not people change.

A rarely performed Octet (in F Major, D803) comprised the second part of the performance and lasted about an hour. In six movements, the strains and phrases lifted and lulled. The time flew as the sounds moved.

I knew the etiquette of refraining from applause between movements, but was unsure of the appropriate response betweens songs. Sometimes the response seemed more informed by the notes than by the musical performance.

I sat right behind Paul Wolfowitz, his head broad and his ears jutted. As I sat there I thought of numerous movies set in the 1940s. Scenes of ladies in forced civility as they socialized with Nazis at concerts of Wagner or other German composers. Nazis, who felt that doing so made them estimable and cultured and refined, while they carried out their crimes. I felt such antipathy toward him, and at times, during break in the music, sometimes even during, his presence distracted me or perhaps my hatred of what he had done distracted me.

During the intermission and after, a group of us speculated if his date was THE girlfriend or not. I noted if it wasn't, he got, as Obama would say, a poor return for investment. But another noted, what relationship could withstand that pressure? The consensus was that his date was not the woman whose appointment he'd made during his tenure at the World Bank partly cost him job (as it was deemed inappropriate).

Gruppe aus der Tartarus/Group from Tararus engaged me. The melancholy melody and the lyrics speaking of pain reverberated with my illness and the despair that sometimes haunts me:

Hark - like the murmuring of the angry sea, like a brook weeping through hallow, rocky gullies,
you can hear over there, deeply muffled, a heavy, toneless groan, extracted with torment!
Pain contorts their faces, despair opens their jaw with curses.
Hallow are their eyes: their gaze rests anxiously on Cocytus' bridge
and they follow Cocytus' sad course with tears.
They ask one another softly with fear whether the end has not yet come!
Eternity whirls above them in circles, breaking Saturn's scythe in two.

I was startled at the conclusion when someone initiated applause. Wolfowitz started it. I read the lyrics in a new light. The notes added, "This is a gloomy hell-like piece of music, reminding one of Michelangelo's 'Last Judgment.' Souls writhing in hell, despairing of ever leaving their terrible fate, is the final answer: eternity!" Later, I looked up Cocytus - it's a Greek word meaning "the river of wailing" and is a river in the mythic underworld. And Saturn's scythe is said to help liberate those suffering in lifeless relationships, which is to say, in hell you're stuck in lifeless relationships.

I found myself contemplating the soul of the man in front of me, the possibility of guilt or remorse. And I thought again of The Sound of Music and of how the family escaped at the end during a Salzberg concert while the Nazi's listened, engaged in the melodies.

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