Music comforts in time of communal contemplation

On Sept. 11, students had a wide range of opportunities available to commemorate the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City, Washington, D.C. and aboard United Flight 93, including a panel discussion in Chapin Hall and a memorial service at Thompson Chapel. In their own homage to the victims, several students from the College participated in a memorial concert at the Tanglewood Festival, entitled “Honoring the Human Spirit.”

From the Berkshire Symphony, violinists Ian Warrington ’03, Aron Chang ’05, Leslie Cochran ’05, Shomik Dutta ’05 and Robert Hahn ’05; violists Noah Bell ’05, Jordan Rodu ’05, Netra Srikanth ’05 and Crystal Wei ’04; cellists Noah Capurso ’05 and Aaron Helfand ’05; bassist David Thal ’03 and harpist Talia Mailman ’06 came together with scores of professional musicians to perform on Tanglewood’s famous outdoor stage. Ronald Feldman, director of the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra and artist-in-residence at the College, led the ensemble.

Feldman invited these students to play alongside other musicians from the area, including members of the Boston, Springfield and Albany symphonies in a performance of Johannes Brahms’s “Ein deutsches Requiem.” The first half of the program featured a variety of performances, including a musical revue about New York sung by Barrington Stage, works by Bach and Rachmaninoff performed by cellist Yehuda Hanani, a performance by Jonathan Epstein and Shakespeare and Co. of selections from several of the Bard’s plays, entitled “Shakespeare on Peace and War.”

The second half of the program opened with “Words of Remembrance, Peace and Hope,” by the Southern Berkshire Interfaith Clergy Association, followed by a moment of silence. The evening closed with the performance of Brahms’ “Requiem.”

Feldman commented about the piece, “I’ve always loved the Brahms ever since my first performance of it under Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Erich Leinsdorf. With the Requiem we are dealing with non-liturgical funeral music. Unlike the Roman Catholic Requiem settings of the 19th century, Brahms’s work, above all, tends to offer comfort from the experience of grief and death. Comfort was what we were seeking on Sept. 11.”

The text of this Requiem is taken from various biblical passages, and the opening chorus begins with the words “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” which indeed set the tone for the entire day of Sept. 11 memorials. Feldman also commented on the use of music to commemorate people and occasions: “Music touches everyone in many ways. Each piece brings forth a variety of images and experiences. A piece of music appropriate to any occasion is understood by every person. This brings people closer together.”

The sold-out concert at Tanglewood served to bring together not only different musicians, but also audience members, as people filled the Ozawa Hall to capacity and packed even the lawn seating. The concert was a great musical opportunity for Williams students and helped to give the College greater visibility in the music world.

At the same hour back on campus, as students filed slowly into Thompson Chapel that evening, it was clear that the tone set for the evening was one of quiet reflection and contemplation. Students were given candles as they entered, and a circle of light gradually formed around the outer edge of the chapel.

The service began with readings by Kathleen Gibbons ’03 and Community Life Coordinator Lindsay Hayes. They were followed with a reading by Eliza Segell ’04 and a reflection by Chaplain Rick Spalding. After two minutes of shared silence, cellist Douglas Moore, professor of music, performed the Sarabande from Bach’s “Suite No. 3 in C Major.”

Bach’s six suites for solo cello are undeniable masterpieces, and it is the true test of every cellist to master all six suites, both musically and technically. Each suite is composed of a prelude and five dances, all of varying characters and tempos. The Sarabande is clearly the most quiet and introverted movement, and although it was once considered a dance, by the time Bach was writing the cello suites, it had lost almost all resemblance to a dance form. The movement serves as a sort of musical resting place in each suite, falling between two livelier and more rhythmically driven dances. When cellists are asked to play for a funeral or any other solemn occasion, the Bach sarabandes immediately come to mind as a clear choice for their reflective and introspective qualities.

Each suite that Bach wrote has its own unique character, and the third suite, while in a major key and generally upbeat, is often tinged with sadness. In the sarabande, this bittersweet feeling is particularly emphasized, which makes it a very appropriate choice for the occasion. While on one hand, we have had to deal with the loss of so many lives, both here and abroad, Sept. 11 has also served to bring us closer together as a community, and has caused us to reflect on what we value in our lives, and how our actions affect others.

The performance of music is a cultural institution, one so closely tied with sympathy and soothing that it is little wonder that it is used to fill a universal need to memorialize and remember humanity’s losses. Moore’s performance served as a crucial focus point for the Williams community, knitting the College together in prayer and contemplation of the piece’s beauty and sadness.

In identical fashion, artists across the world organized a musical memorial to Sept. 11 entitled “the Rolling Requiem,” where Mozart’s Requiem was performed in every time zone around the world at 8:46 a.m. EST, exactly one year after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. The “Requiem” was performed over 200 times in 26 different countries, involving more than 17,000 singers and almost 5,000 instrumentalists.

In the state of Massachusetts alone, there were four performances: in Boston, Framingham, Newburyport and South Attleboro. The idea for the project originated in Bellevue, Wash. After a performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” by the Seattle Symphony and Chorale last fall, a singer had a chance encounter with a patron for the symphony, who suggested that some of America’s best choirs assemble at the World Trade Center site to perform the “Requiem” on the first anniversary of the attacks.

Soon the idea expanded into the Rolling Requiem, and a group of volunteers from the Seattle Symphony Chorale began contacting choirs all over the world to see if they would participate. After receiving enthusiastic responses from groups as far away as Latvia and Taiwan, the project began to take shape, and by Sept. 11, over 200 performances had been scheduled on all seven continents.

The Rolling Requiem began in Auckland, New Zealand, and made its way around the world, finishing with a performance in American Samoa. In Riga, Latvia, 19 choirs convened in the country’s largest cathedral, the Dome Cathedral, and in Seattle, near where the idea for the project was born, the concert was moved to SAFECO Field, where 20,000 people were expected to attend.

Other performances of the “Requiem” took place in such locations as Suriname, Thailand, Haiti and even the South Pole. It is unclear at this point whether the Rolling Requiem will become an annual tradition, but with such success in its first year, one hopes that it will continue in following years. The Rolling Requiem showcases another side to the power of music, and that is how it brings disparate people of the world together to work towards a common goal.