On Sept. 20, 2001, the New York Philharmonic was to host a Lincoln Center gala to open the final season for music director Kurt Masur. But with the event scheduled to take place just nine days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, New York City was a tattered nerve more in need of consolation than celebration. So Masur and executive director Zarin Mehta convinced that the occasion could offer the power of music for healing and unity changed the program. The orchestra performed under the 48-star flag it had used during its World War II-era concerts in Carnegie Hall. The evening began with the national anthem, sung by all in attendance, and ended with Brahms' A German Requiem.
Before Masur took the podium at Avery Fisher Hall that night, he asked the audience not to applaud at the end of the performance. And so, after seven cathartic movements of Brahms' choral masterpiece adapted from Martin Luther's version of the Bible, with words more consoling than perhaps any other requiem in the canon the audience waited in silence. It was a powerful coda, and the concert, broadcast on PBS, extended its reach to a grieving and anxious nation.
With that evening in mind, Mehta and current music director Alan Gilbert pondered how best to honor the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. Gilbert, in an interview in his Lincoln Center office, said he and Mehta reached back through the history of the ensemble to select a work that Gilbert describes as "iconically associated with the New York Philharmonic but also universal in nature." On Sept. 10, he will conduct Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, which the composer and one-time conductor of the Philharmonic titled Resurrection. As a spiritual journey through grief and redemption, Mahler's second symphony is often played for commemorative events. The work begins with foreboding, a tremolo of strings interrupted by agitated bursts of contrabass. The first movement was originally written as a funeral march before Mahler folded it into this grand symphony, which over nearly 90 minutes, shifts in mood from the fear of death to lilting folksong themes to a finale that soars above all earthly concerns. In that finale, the chorus, after sitting for nearly an hour, stands to join two soloists and using lyrics adapted from poems begins in almost a whisper: "Arise, yes, you will arise."
That's when Gilbert hopes something truly exceptional will take place. "The thing that I think can happen in a concert hall in the best of cases," said Gilbert, "is a shared moment where somehow [everyone's] hearts are beating together."
As the work builds towards a climax, the chorus the same one that performed the Brahms Requiem with Masur in 2001, the New York Choral Artists almost shouts "Prepare yourself to live!" Minutes later, nearly everyone on stage is playing as the chorus sings: "Your heartbeats, what you have lived through, will bear you to God."
It's a piece known for bringing people to tears, and playing it on this occasion will likely only magnify its power.
The concert, which is giving out free tickets and will also be telecast on PBS on Sept. 11, is one of several classical music events in the U.S. marking the 10th anniversary of that tragic day. Trinity Church, in downtown Manhattan not far from Ground Zero, has been hosting choral events all week in the run-up to Sept. 11. At the National Cathedral in Washington, a Friday night performance of the Brahms Requiem will honor the families of those who died in the attack on the Pentagon. And on Saturday night, just an hour or so after Gilbert and his orchestra leave the stage in New York, the curtain at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House will rise on the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier . The opera, commissioned by the San Francisco Opera and composed by Christopher Theofanidis, is based on the book of the same title by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart; it chronicles the life of Rick Rescorla, a British-born former soldier who fought for the U.S. in Vietnam and went on to become head of security for Morgan Stanley in Tower Two of the World Trade Center. The role of Rescorla, who lost his life on Sept. 11 after evacuating thousands of workers from the building, will be played by baritone Thomas Hampson, who was a soloist in the Brahms concert with Masur in 2001.
The New York Philharmonic has also commissioned a work to mark the anniversary. Composer John Corigliano wrote the piece, titled One Sweet Morning, as a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra based on four poems about war. It will have its world premiere at Avery Fisher Hall on Sept. 30.
Gilbert, like Masur before him, sees the universal power of music as a way to bring communities together, and believes concerts like the one on Sept. 10, are part of the civic role that the Philharmonic performs, for both the city and the country. "There will be a cathartic feeling in the room both moved and sad," he said about the Mahler symphony. "But ultimately we will feel our shared humanity, and music has a special ability to inspire that to happen."
A telecast of "A Concert for New York for the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11 In Remembrance and Renewal" will appear on PBS's Great Performances on Sunday, Sept. 11 at 9 pm ET. The orchestra will perform the Mahler 2nd symphony in subscription concerts Sept. 22-27.
Heart of a Soldier will be performed seven times at the San Francisco Opera through the end of September.