Lest we Forget

In September 2001, I was living and working in Portland, Oregon, running the Oregon Symphony.  On the morning of the 11th, my son and I were visiting his school for a very early morning meeting. As we walked into the headmaster’s office, he said, looking rather quizzical, “Oh, did you hear that a plane flew into one of the twin towers in New York City?” I said, “No, what an odd thing; it must have been one of those two seaters.”  We still had no idea of the magnitude of the event when we emerged at 8 am (Pacific Time, that is), but then we were bombarded by stories and images, all of which seemed totally unbelievable. Throughout the day, there seemed to be nothing any of us could do except ask questions, talk, sit and discuss, and confront those images being played over and over again on TV.

Eventually, discussions at the Oregon Symphony started to crystallize around the contribution we might make to the community, which, even though 3000 miles away from NYC, was in deep shock and trauma. We conceived of doing a special free community concert, televised and broadcast live on the radio and played out on speakers in the park blocks behind the concert hall.  Such a project would normally have taken 18 months of planning and negotiation, but we were on a mission and pulled it all together in three days.  Everyone wanted to help, everyone wanted to provide something free.  Donors and corporations willingly gave to make everything possible.

However, what I had forgotten to do in the heat of the moment was enlist the orchestra musicians in the project. Not surprisingly, they were feeling confused, neglected, traumatized.  What was this concert?  Why was it important?  Very understandably, they wanted to be with their families, offering support to their children.  I took a call in my office, which was a few blocks from the concert hall requesting that I come over and talk to the whole orchestra. The players wanted some reassurance and answers.  I raced over, but on the way could not conceive of a single phrase that would explain how important I felt this event would be in healing our community.

So, there I stood on the podium, feeling intensely emotional with all 90 pairs of eyes expectant.  I have no idea where it came from but I found myself telling a story.  It was a story of my own country,

London in the Blitz

England, during the Second World War, when London and many other cities were relentlessly bombed by the Nazis.  London alone suffered over 70 massive raids, which destroyed huge chunks of the city, and killed civilians indiscriminately.  In this chaos and fear, people turned to the arts, and, in particular, music, for reassurance and an alleviation of the horror they were experiencing.

Sir Henry Wood

And musicians were there, playing, singing, providing the comfort to the soul that only great art and great music can supply. On many occasions, audiences sat through air raid warnings, heard and felt the sound of bombs exploding, yet continued listening to

National Gallery Concerts, London

the power of a symphony orchestra playing with emotion and total commitment, disregarding the mortal danger they faced.

That was my story. The story of the power of music in our lives. It filled me with pride and with tears.  No one said anything. The concert happened and it was truly magnificent.  The then Music Director James DePreist led a programme listened to in silence and appreciated in silence, with the slow movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony seemingly prefiguring all the grief of those few intense days.

Portland, OR September 2001

Thousands watched the concert live on TV, hundreds of people stood in silence in the park blocks, as the music emerged from giant speakers, holding hands or cradling children tired but not asleep in their arms.  It was in community terms, the best of times and the worst of times.

Ten years later, and we are commemorating those events, remembering the world at that time and how it was changed by the tragedy.  At NEC, we are giving a special concert on September 11 at 2 p.m. in Jordan Hall.  It will be broadcast simultaneously on Boston All Classical 99.5 and WGBH 89.7. With the exception of the conductor, all the performers will be young people—high school age—including our Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, three soloists, Youth Chorale, and singers from the Handel and Haydn Society’s Young Men’s and Young Women’s Choruses.  These huge forces will be conducted by Ben Zander.  At the centerpiece of the program will be the world premiere of Silvio Amato’s interfaith oratorio, Illuminessence: Prayers for Peace. Fittingly, the work sets prayers from the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths and it underscores the commonality of human aspiration and the universal spiritual impulse.

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Tragedy is so often in our lives. Just a few weeks ago, one of our alumnae, violinist Alicia Doudna, ’04 M.M. was involved with her fiancé in a horrific car accident.  They are both still in hospital and we send them our love and support. String chair Lucy Chapman has coordinated a special concert in Williams Hall on Sept. 13 at 8 p.m. Many musicians have rushed forward to donate their services wanting to help in the way that only music can help. I remember my music master at grammar school suddenly addressing the entire school with a quote: “Whither doth the uttered music go?” That question has always resonated with me, but today I know the answer.  It goes to the heart.

Photo: Shivam Patel

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3 Responses to Lest we Forget

  1. E says:

    Beautiful, real and genuinely felt.

  2. THIS STORY REMINDS ME OF ONE I HEARD MANY YEARS AGO: “IF RELIGION CANNOT HEAL THE WORLD, MUSIC CAN.”

  3. Digoweli says:

    Lovely story. Thank you. Ray Evans Harrell

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