"Memory space": Where art allows us to grieve and glory

by Emily Vides

Harvard Arts Beat Commentary (Emily Vides, Communications and Administrative Associate, Office for the Arts at Harvard)On Friday, April 29, I attended the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra, Holden Choirs, and Boston Children’s Chorus’ concert of John AdamsOn the Transmigration of Souls and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in Sanders Theatre. There, I re-experienced the grief of our national tragedy that happened on September 11, 2001, but was then set free by the thrill and ecstasy of Beethoven’s 9th. I had never seen the full 9th and was unprepared for the sheer numbers: 250 singers and musicians crowded the stage (and the balcony), guided by conductors Andrew Clark and Federico Cortese. I was also unprepared for the journey through fear and sadness they took us on with Adams' piece, but so glad that the evening ended in a place of joy and hope.Adams’ piece was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and "attempts to create a ‘memory space’ for the construction of a new way of being, one that hopefully includes full and continuing life, but one that is irrevocably marked by the past" (according to the concert program). This is a hard piece -- to listen to, to perform and to carry with you. Given the news of the death of Osama bin Laden yesterday at the hands of American forces, I am glad to have been at the concert to experience the pain and joy of the music.I cried when the choirs sang "we will miss you…we all miss you…we all love you." It tore at my heart to hear the young adults on the stage, most of them who couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12, but more likely 8 or 9, in 2001, singing the words that John Adams took from the missing-persons posters and memorials that sprang up around the vicinity of ground zero to the people who died in the collapse of the Twin Towers or who were still missing. This was the world the student musicians grew up in, and last night as I heard the chants of "USA! USA!" travel through the baseball crowd at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and again as I saw the cover of the Harvard Crimson this morning, I thought, "There has to be a better way to respond to this death than with jubilant cheer." I understand it, the feeling of relief and yes, of excitement that people experienced last night and today at the news of bin Laden's death. But...but......there is a better way: through art we can explore the sorrow and pain of senseless loss, of confusion and chaos, of pathos and remembrance, without the "I'm right, you're wrong"-ness of politics and finality of military force. Catharsis can happen without giving into bloodlust, and bloodlust and the desire for revenge can be explored without compromising your soul. Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls is not fun, but it is necessary. It makes the tragedy of 9/11 personal and human and opens up a space to reflect, with the recorded city sounds that begin and end the piece -- so much like the Vietnam War Memorial's Wall of Names that reflects your own face back to you as you hear the sadness and chaos of the music.And after that, the only thing left to do is to remember how great it is to be here, to be alive, on a Spring evening in the Sanders Theatre of Memorial Hall.The opening lines of Beethovens’ 9th are:

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! | Oh friends, not these tones! Sondern laßt uns angenehmere an stimmen, | Rather, let us raise our voices in more und freudenvollere. | pleasing and more joyful sounds! Freude! | Joy!

Beethoven speaks to us from the past and says, "It's okay, you don't have to be swallowed by grief, there is joy in life, and the dead would want you to feel joy." The pace and almost maddening energy of Beethoven's 9th were remarkable, with Maestro Cortese driving the HRO and Choirs on with his furious conducting. John Adams' piece was still there in the room (as was John Adams, who came to Friday night's performance), but the hole it opened up in all of us present was filled with the human joy that Beethoven gave us almost 200 years ago. The only possible answer to the questions that Adams’ piece makes you face are the words from Ode to Joy: "Alle Menschen werden Brüder." All men are made brothers. If not, the terrorists truly do win, and we are scarcely better than they are. I wish everyone in America could have been at Sanders that night.

[Caption: Federico Cortese conducts the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra in 2009]

[Caption: John Adams PHOTO: Jacob Belcher]