Capturing emotion in the music
Concerts at the Hatch Shell and Jordan Hall to mark Sept. 11 anniversary
Moments like the decennial of the Sept. 11 attacks - which tore open a gaping hole in this country and altered its history - join private grief with public significance. And music, with its capacity to create intimacy in the midst of collective emotion, is an essential ingredient in our commemorations.
Many of the large-scale memorial concerts are happening in New York, of course, but at least two are taking place in Boston. “Massachusetts Remembers,’’ a concert at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, will be hosted by former WBZ-TV (Channel 4) news anchor Liz Walker. The Boston Pops Brass Ensemble and the Boston Children’s Chorus will perform, with an emphasis on fanfares, patriotic songs, and spirituals.
The second is a concert at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, featuring that school’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra with assorted choruses and soloists. The 2 p.m. program will be broadcast live by WGBH, in the first-ever simulcast of its stations 99.5 Boston’s All-Classical and 89.7 WGBH Radio.
The concert’s centerpiece is the premiere of “Illuminessence,’’ an oratorio that unites the prayers of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The piece was commissioned by the Vatican and composed by Silvio Amato, a composer well known in his native Italy for film and television scores who now lives in Boston.
Benjamin Zander, the YPO’s conductor and a man with a gift for drawing audiences into a musical experience, was faced with the question of what to surround the oratorio with that could not only make sense on an artistic level but fit with the concert’s civic profile. Speaking by phone last week, Zander said that he decided to open the concert with “The Star-Spangled Banner,’’ to remind listeners that “this is an American moment.’’
The second piece “chose itself,’’ said Zander - Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,’’ a piece that has long connoted American mourning, having been heard at the deaths of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Zander acknowledges that the funereal aura that surrounds the piece is some distance from what Barber himself intended. Its broader importance, though, transcends issues of musical exactness.
“When something like 9/11 comes around, and especially on the 10th anniversary, people want to gather to experience together something that will transform their experience of it,’’ he said. “And the Barber is a way of presenting that grief.’’
An arrangement of the poignant “Meditation’’ from the Massenet opera “Thais’’ is next, with the 14-year-old violinist Yuki Beppu as soloist. “Illuminessence’’ follows, and then perhaps the concert’s most curious entry: an excerpt from the “Ode to Joy’’ from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The boisterous elation of the chorus is far from what some may expect on such a somber occasion.
But Zander insists that the Beethoven fulfills an important role on the program. Where “Illuminessence’’ celebrates the three monotheistic religions, “for those of us who are not religious but who nevertheless feel deeply spiritual, there’s something missing,’’ Zander explained. The Beethoven, with its famous dictum that “all men shall be brothers,’’ fills that role.
“That’s really what this event is about,’’ said the conductor, who plans to teach the words and melody to the Jordan Hall audience. “It’s about the separateness, the divided nature of the world, and unifying people through music.’’
It will no doubt be a moving experience, and so will hearing “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord’’ and “America the Beautiful’’ on the Esplanade. Surely events in New York will be especially moving, such as tomorrow’s performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony by the New York Philharmonic.
And yet, all these carefully planned memorials and tributes don’t really get at music’s true power in the face of tragedy. For that, nothing can come close to the music that sprang up spontaneously in the direct aftermath of 9/11. People who were in New York speak with a kind of awe about the Philharmonic’s performance of the Brahms Requiem that took place just days after the attack. It wasn’t just that the piece is a balm to those who mourn; it was the unprompted authenticity of the event.
One of the most amazing examples of this came from a violinist named William Harvey, a Juilliard student in September 2001. After 9/11 he volunteered to play at the Park Avenue Armory, a hub for those working at the site of the attacks and for people waiting for news of missing loved ones. In an account that spread widely on the Internet, Harvey described being asked to play for soldiers of the Army’s 69th Infantry Division, who had spent the day digging through the rubble at ground zero. For hours, he played whatever his memory could provide - Bach, Tchaikovsky, “Amazing Grace,’’ folk songs.
“Never have I played for a more grateful audience,’’ Harvey wrote. “Somehow it didn’t matter that by the end, my intonation was shot and I had no bow control. I would have lost any competition I was playing in, but it didn’t matter.’’ He ended his evening by playing the national anthem, “as the 300 men of the 69th Division saluted an invisible flag.’’
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.