In 2002, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned a new work from American composer John Adams to commemorate the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The piece, “On the Transmigration of Souls,” received its premiere just weeks after the first anniversary of 9/11, sharing a program with Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony.
On Saturday night at Strathmore, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra reprised the Philharmonic’s 2002 program.
Music director Marin Alsop opened the concert with remarks about how the now often-paired works show that “music can give us hope.” Yet beyond the platitudes, the program did offer a profound musical juxtaposition, at least on paper: Adams’s memorialization through a fragmented and highly localized musical language and Beethoven’s ode to universal brotherhood. In execution, however, the results were less than illuminating.
“On the Transmigration of Souls,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003, sets to music fragments of text largely taken from missing-persons posters and makeshift memorials near Ground Zero. Adams’s quasi-minimalist accompaniment sustains a meditative, reflective atmosphere for this highly personal language of grief before building to a panicked, almost hysterical climax. A recorded track offers sounds of the city as a backdrop before giving way to a solemn recitation of victims’ names. Yet despite Alsop’s careful direction and urgent singing from the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and the Peabody Children’s Chorus, the performance could not disguise the essentially slender nature of Adams’s score.
Adams has said he focused on individual family members as an antidote to the country’s collective “orgy of narcissism” after 9/11. Alas, the BSO’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth was undermined by another form of narcissism: that of the conductor. Alsop led a frenzied dash through the score, with breathless tempos, sloppiness of execution and superficial drama. Forget nobility. Forget spirituality. The vocal quartet — Angela Meade, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Dimitri Pittas and Eric Owens — coped valiantly with Alsop’s demands, but all subtleties were lost in the headlong race to the finish.
Chin is a freelance writer.