Sunday, April 10, 2016

'Communion' in music

Following the recent terrorist attacks in Europe, musicians and their audiences found solace in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach: Pianist Alexandre Tharaud played the “Goldberg Variations” in Paris; conductor John Eliot Gardiner led the “Saint Matthew Passion” in Brussels.

After the chaos of the Paris massacres, performing the Goldbergs provided “deep inner silence . . . a chance for to be quiet together . . . a communion,” Tharaud tells David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Neither of those Bach programs had been planned as a response to tragic events; but comfort and communion in music often comes without prior intent.

My most lingering musical memory from Richmond concerts after 9/11 was a Sept. 14, 2001, program by the Richmond Symphony and Symphony Chorus, Eckart Preu conducting, with Barber’s “Agnus Dei,” the choral reworking of his Adagio for strings, followed by Brahms’ “Alto Rhapsody,” sung by mezzo-soprano Martha Slay, and Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy,” played by pianist Joanne Kong.

That program, marking the chorus’ 30th anniversary, had been planned months in advance as a celebration, not a commemoration, and the Beethoven is hardly elegiac in tone or spirit. Yet the three pieces proved to be perfect for the occasion: solace from Barber and Brahms, and then from Beethoven a fortifying fight song for Western civilization.

Another Richmond Symphony concert, led by Mark Russell Smith on April 20, 2007, a few days after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, featured “The Lark Ascending,” the meditative rhapsody by Ralph Vaughan Williams, played by violinist Jessica Lee. Another long-planned selection that turned out to be just what we needed at the time.