I also have to admire the maestro for choosing On the Transmigration of Souls as his opener for the season. The Utah Symphony crowd is a pretty conservative one, and he ran a big risk by selecting a piece that so many find inaccessible. The piece, by John Adams, is unlike any other work I've heard in a concert hall. I've heard the BSO perform Varèse, so I'm not unfamiliar with grand, prolonged dissonances, but Adams' piece is different entirely. The notes of On the Transmigration of Souls are almost inconsequential. The piece isn't about structure, melody, and counterpoint. It centers on a heart-wrenching libretto and a progression of feeling that comes from the piece's overall sound.
Adams' is a dark piece. It focuses in on the agony of personal loss rather than global upheaval. It also challenges what we think of as music and poetry. For example, the lyrics weren't penned by a poet. They're taken from real-life sources—mostly the actual fliers for missing persons, but also personal pieces in the New York Times. The libretto creates a tangible grief and such a poignant realism. I don't know if it could be equaled with composed poetry. I wept when the choir sang, "I loved him from the start…I wanted to dig him out. I know just where he is." Other especially powerful lines:
"We love you Louis. Come home."
"She had a voice like an angel, and shared it with everyone, in good times and in bad."
"I miss his gentleness, his intelligence, his loyalty, his love."
The mother says: "He used to call me every day. I'm just waiting."
The whole performance reminded me of one of the closing lines of Eliot's "Wasteland." "These fragments I have shored up against my ruins."
But I need to be honest. I did not like On the Transmigration of Souls the first several times I heard it, and I probably would never have appreciated it until I experienced it live. In fact, my string quartet in memoriam was written as a direct response to Adams' piece. I wanted to write something accessible and firmly tonal, and to focus more on the events and healing that occurred after 9/11. His piece, on the other hand, eloquently tells the story of those awful events, and its focus rests firmly on that day.
And then we heard an interpretation of Beethoven's 9th symphony unlike any I have ever heard. Thierry Fischer showed his chops and fully rose to the occasion. I've never, ever heard a performance of Beethoven's 9th with such a deft emphasis on the interplay between different sections of the orchestra. Since the age of 16, I've heard that symphony performed by a dozen different orchestras, studied the score, and listened to it in its entirety close to one hundred times, but last night I heard things in that symphony I didn't know were there. Fischer pulls out the best in his musicians, and comes to the stand with passion, knowledge, and skill in equal measure. I was completely blown away.
And recontextualizing this most iconic symphony in relation to 9/11 was brilliant. Fischer isn't the first to do it, but it was powerful nonetheless. There were a few lines from Schiller's poem that I felt were especially apt. "Deine Zauber binden wieder was die Mode streng geteilt / Alle Menschen werden Brüder wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt." And then I couldn't help but feel moved by the repeated chanting of "Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt." Previously when I would listen to this piece, I was always awestruck by its majesty. But this time, I was mostly overcome with nothing more or less than pure joy. I think this was a performance and a context Beethoven would have been pleased with.
Then, after a lengthy ovation, Maestro Fischer led the orchestra and audience in a rousing version of "The Star Spangled Banner." As we reached the end and sang, "Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave / o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?" I thought to myself, yes! Yes, this has been a rocky ten years. Yes, our liberties have been compromised. Yes, we have intruded in places where we shouldn't have been. We've made mistakes, and we don't smell like a bed of roses. But this remains the freest country in the world. Our history has never been untarnished, but we still continue the great experiment. Once again we are being tested to see if a nation "so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."
Let us "highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."