The Aspen Music Festival and School,
David Zinman, Music Director
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra,
Peter Oundjian, Music Director
Peter Lieberson created this orchestral suite, which is based on his 1997 opera Ashoka’s Dream, in 2008 on a joint commission from the Aspen Music Festival and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The world première was given on August 2, 2009 in Aspen.
An emperor from the third century B.C.E., Ashoka subjugated most of the Indian subcontinent through a brutal series of civil wars. Yet a sudden change of heart, triggered by remorse for the suffering he had inflicted to win power, led Ashoka to embrace the teachings of Buddha. He came to promote an enlightened rule based on compassion, social justice, and the principles of nonviolence. Ashoka’s Dream centers on this remarkable conversion. Peter Lieberson’s opera (to a libretto by Douglas Penick) imagines representative moments from the emperor’s life to illustrate the internal drama of his evolution.
Because of the intricate role of the orchestra in his original score, Lieberson realised he could preserve the opera’s most powerful moments in the format of an instrumental suite. At the same time, he wanted to emphasise the opera’s lyrical qualities. The suite consists of two parts—each further divided into four sections—that correspond to the opera’s two acts. Part One opens with music depicting the arrogant young Ashoka. A solo clarinet leads into a passage from the emperor’s first aria and a duet with his first wife (who is later banished in favor of his consort). Following this is an exquisite section drawing on Lieberson’s portrayal of the two women. Darkly martial music from the battle scene that inspires Ashoka’s epiphany ends the first part. Beginning quietly, Part Two traces Ashoka’s forest journey and the pivotal moment of his conversion. The second section is from a short duet with his consort, who has become his second wife. But she proves unable to follow the emperor in his vision of a compassionate society. The suite concludes with music representing the death of Ashoka.
Program note by Thomas May. Permission required to reprint.