At times of mourning, classical music comes into its own. We respond to tragedy with music: memorial concerts, instrumental solos at a funeral. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, bore a flood of tribute concerts in their wake, and they return this year in notable proportions to honor the 10th anniversary.
Western classical music has always been good at memorializing. Classical music, to many who love it, is an art form of the past; much of the canon is a century or more old. A traditional classical concert offers familiarity, ritual, comfort. We know which passages will make us cry. After disaster, ritual has fresh power to comfort — not least because it has itself endured. A composer who died 200 years ago can still speak, and still move us: What better comfort can you offer someone suffering from a fresh loss than such evidence of immortality?
In the fall of 2001 in New York City, I heard some of the most moving concerts I had ever heard, including the New York Philharmonic’s Brahms Requiem. The mood that fall evoked stories of postwar Germany, when people packed into half-ruined basements to listen to chamber music in churchlike silence. It’s at such times that classical music, so powerful, can truly serve as food for the soul.
Unfortunately, there’s a narrow line between this vital function and the automatic commemorative role that classical music is also frequently assigned, its town-band role as a signifier of a certain high-mindedness at commemorations that have little actual significance to the audience.
Take the Kennedy Center’s celebration of JFK in January. The National Symphony Orchestra played a world premiere; Yo-Yo Ma played Saint-Saens. But did either of these things actually bring alive memories of Kennedy? And were they high art? They felt like a placeholder for actual feeling; the ritual, here, lacked content.
For the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the Kennedy Center has also put together a commemoration. To be held on Sept. 8, and open only by invitation to members of the 9/11 community — families, first responders, and others who were directly involved — it will also include the NSO, as well as Emmylou Harris and the ubiquitous mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (heard in July in Manassas at a concert commemorating the Battle of Bull Run).
The question is, how many commemorations do we need before we’re ready to move on, how many performances of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, which appears to be the classical answer to “God Bless America,” an unofficial anthem of memorial?
It’s a question without a clear answer. A big institution like an orchestra unquestionably does have a civic as well as an artistic function. The New York Philharmonic is offering a free tribute concert on Sept. 10 — Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony — that will be televised nationally the next night.
In Washington, we expected the Kennedy Center to weigh in with a 9/11 memorial, and are relieved to find that they are holding one. It may be more fitting, though, that it’s the Washington National Cathedral that’s taken the main commemorative responsibilities, with a memorial weekend, starting with a Brahms Requiem on Sept. 9 and culminating in a multi-genre Concert for Hope (with Graves) Sept. 11.
We do need commemorations. But it’s hard to turn on the spigots of emotion on command. To feed the soul, music has to come from the soul, and big institutions don’t always have the emotional connection with their communities that fuels a meaningful memorial.
Indeed, individual communities — local choruses, amateur orchestras — are responsible for many of the 9/11 anniversary concerts around the country, and in Washington. On Sept. 11 itself, the only commemorative event at the Kennedy Center is a Peace Concert presented by the Washington Korean Symphony Orchestra in the Terrace Theater. The group Choralis is giving a concert called “In Search of Peace” at the National Presbyterian Church; the World Doctors Orchestra will perform Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and Mahler’s “Resurrection” at Strathmore; the University of Maryland orchestra and chorus will offer Mozart’s Requiem.
One particular community in New York City is hoping to offer a striking tribute of its own. The musicians and composers who lived in Lower Manhattan at the time of the attacks are joining in a free marathon concert called Music After, starting at 8:46 in the morning and lasting until after midnight. It will unite a wide range of luminaries including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Lou Reed, Meredith Monk, Rosanne Cash, David Lang, David Del Tredici, and dozens of others.
The point of this event is not only commemoration, not only nostalgia, but a reaffirmation of the resiliency of the creative spirit. It will be, that is, if the organizers can raise the funding. Everyone wants commemoration; but not everyone, especially 10 years later, is eager to pay for it.