NEW YORK—Grief is a harrowing, painful experience; one may never fully recover from the memory of losing a loved one. The grieving process can be long and difficult, but music always has that rare capability to console and uplift, to cleanse and soothe. Whether it be the cathartic experience of hearing emotions transposed into moving melodies, or feeling that moment when the notes are no longer mere sounds but have been transformed into a call for hope and humanity—we turn to music because it can save us from our darkest moments and help ease the pain of loss.
At the concert commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11, held at Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday, Sept. 11, one truly felt the astounding power of music to heal and console. Presented by Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY), the program featured pieces that explored both the depths of grief and the strength to carry on.
After guest narrator and celebrated soprano Jessye Norman led the audience to observe a moment of silence, the concert opened with Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” played beautifully by DCINY’s orchestra. A poignant and heartrending classic, “Adagio for Strings” reminds us that there is still hope in the midst of tragedy, and that, perhaps, we will be able to overcome.
American composer René Clausen’s “Memorial” came next, a piece he wrote as a reflection of the events of 9/11. The first movement is joyous and cheerful, like that beautiful “September Morning” in 2001. But soon, the music descends into a chaotic terror, the voices deafening and the rhythm dramatic.
Despite sounding like a film score, the second movement (“The Attack”) effectively conveyed a sense of horror. In the last two movements, “Prayers” and “Petitions,” the DCINY chorus sang a soothing melody that enveloped the entire theater with its warmth, prompting many in the audience to shed tears at its solemn beauty.
When the mass of voices all came together, the healing power of the sound almost washed away all sorrow. Bass-baritone Bradley Ellingboe sang the solos, but his voice was often drowned out by the chorus.
The second half of the program was devoted to Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’s works, “For the Fallen,” and “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace,” performed by the U.K.’s largest choral society, The Really Big Chorus.
Originally written in memory of Jenkins’s uncle, who was killed in action during World War II, “For the Fallen” is a graceful composition that reflects the tremendous respect and love that Jenkins had for his uncle. At the same time, the text (a poem of the same name by English poet Laurence Binyon) is also fitting tribute to the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives to save others on 9/11.
“The Armed Man” is an impressive 13-movement piece that covers a great range of moods and emotions. It is his most popular work to date. Jenkins wrote it in the 90s in memory of the victims of the Kosovo conflict. As characteristic of Jenkins’s style, he set to music various religious texts of different traditions, as well as poem passages, in order to convey the horrors of war and our inner yearning for peace.
The first movement, “The Armed Man,” begins with the beating of snare drums that call us to war, sparing, and cold. The lines are from a 15th century French tune, “L’Homme Armé”: “The armed man must be feared. Everywhere it has been decreed that every man should arm himself with an iron coat of mail.”
The next several movements are pleas to God to aid us in our most vulnerable and fearful moments, first with an Arabic prayer (“Call to Prayers”), followed by a haunting “Kyrie” and a grim “Save Me from Bloody Men,” which was sung solely by the tenors and baritones.
“Sanctus” then warns us of impending doom, with each repeat of the ominous, foreboding theme hinting that tragedy is nearing. The intensity builds in “Hymn Before Action,” set to a poem by Rudyard Kipling. It ends with a powerful appeal, “Lord grant us strength to die!”
War commences as the horns open “Charge,” hopeful of victory. But soon, everything descends into a cacophony of frightening voices, and after a long pause of silence, a lone trumpet in the balcony of the theater began to sing out in memory of the dead.
What follows is a raw and heartbreaking representation of man’s darkest hour, first with “Angry Flames,” set to a poem written by Toge Sankichi, a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. There is a sense that nothing is left, that all is gone. Then, “Torches,” set to a passage from the Sanskrit epic, “The Mahabharata,” awes with its eerie rendering of death and devastation.
If the previous two movements depicted humanity at its bleakest, then “Agnus Dei” gives us a ray of hope that we shall prevail, its soaring melody reminiscent of angels who have come to take us away from the savages of the earth. The voices soothe and comfort us.
“Now The Guns Have Stopped” is a sorrowful mourning for “my dearest friend, who should be with me now, not cold, too soon, and in your grave, alone.”
In the wake of the loss, we may never fully recover, but we shall forever cherish the precious memories of our loved ones—that is the message “Benedictus” delivers. It is a deeply moving piece that would have been spectacular, but it was unfortunate that the lead cellist failed to deliver on her solo and made several mistakes while playing.
The last movement brought the Mass to a bright finish, echoing the theme of the first movement, but now confidently proclaiming that “Better is peace than always war.”
Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Daw Paulsen was arresting in her solo in “Angry Flames,” the unique timbre of her voice resonating with the hopelessness the song conveyed. Soprano Erika Grace Powell sang well, but failed to wow in her solos, while tenor Brian Cheney barely got to showcase his voice, given his small role.After the performance concluded, the crowd gave a long standing ovation. People remained standing, applauding warmly, as if expressing deep gratitude for the solace they received from the music.
For many in the audience, the concert made the 10th anniversary of pain and loss more memorable and more hopeful.