Raising voices, music to help a nation heal

Adams weaves many sounds into a work about 9/11

September 23, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK - In the aftermath of 9/11, artists of virtually every genre felt compelled to respond. This urge invariably follows almost any numbing tragedy, since art can provide so many different ways to find a release of emotions - or a refuge from them.

Often, revisiting great works of the past fulfills this need, like the global performances of Mozart's Requiem held on the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks. But for many, the stronger impulse is to make fresh artistic statements, born directly out of the memories and the pain. This is what composer John Adams has done in a substantial score called On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic.

The premiere, sold-out performances of the piece (and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) conclude tomorrow night at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.

Given Adams' stature - his bold, opinion-dividing operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer and his ambitious orchestral works are among the stylistic and substantive stand-outs in contemporary music since the 1980s - the new work represents a major addition to the process of dealing with the national trauma.

It is scored for large orchestra, regular chorus and children's chorus, pre-recorded recitations and sound effects.

Lasting about 25 minutes, the work attempts "to achieve in musical terms the same sort of feeling one gets upon entering one of those old, majestic cathedrals," Adams says, where "you feel you are in the presence of many souls."

The subject is not just the "transmigration" of souls from life to death, "but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience transformed."

The texts the composer chose include a litany of names of the dead, recited by different voices; a few lines from family members about the victims quoted in The New York Times' "Portraits of Grief" series; and, most poignantly, simple phrases that Adams read on missing-persons signs posted near Ground Zero.

The audience also occasionally hears on tape sounds of a big city - traffic, feet on sidewalks, a distant siren.

With such ingredients, this work could easily have turned out too emotional, invasive even. Or, worse, trite. But Adams avoids that, partly by the way he subtly weaves words into the musical fabric and has them delivered as calmly as a prayer.

Emotion, when it comes, rises in the music with a natural force, most tellingly when the two choruses sing the words of an unnamed wife: "I wanted to dig him out. I know just where he is." The orchestra surges here, but never into hysterical melodic lines or grating harmonies. It is a mature rage, which turns into a heavily punctuated chant - "Light, day, sky." Those three, short repeated words somehow speak volumes.

Adams makes inspired use of references to Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question, that haunting piece from the early 1900s, as an entry point into his own unanswered questioning.

On the Transmigration of Souls is more about pondering than providing catharsis or profundity. For what it's worth, a woman sitting next to me at Friday's performance said she was surprised at how unmoved she was by it, while a man somewhere behind me let out a loud "boo" when Adams appeared for a bow. The rest of the audience sounded quite appreciative.

For me, the work's rather amorphous quality kept it from sinking in deeply. It seemed, in a strange way, almost too respectful. But its craftsmanship and sincerity were unmistakable.

So were the clarity and authority of the performance, conducted by new Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel. The orchestra was admirably responsive, the New York Choral Artists and Brooklyn Youth Chorus exceptional.

If his approach to Beethoven's Ninth is typical of what's in store, Maazel's tenure will be generating lots of tremendously potent, gripping, highly individualistic moments - separated by lots of maddeningly over-fussy, downright lifeless ones.

The conductor's technique is a well-known wonder; you couldn't find a better cue-giver in the business. But for all of the control, and the attentive response it generated in the Philharmonic, it was often hard to find a heart beating strongly in the music-making. The finale, though, with stirring choral efforts and a mostly brilliant vocal quartet, caught fire; Maazel's super-elongated hold on the last note before the tenor solo was particularly effective (even if a few singers and players ran out of steam).

In the end, Beethoven's ode to brotherhood had sufficient force to provide one answer, however hopelessly idealistic, to the questions posed by Adams and the silent dust of 9/11.

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