There were myriad ways in the United States of commemorating the tenth anniversary of that watershed date, September 11, 2001. Surely one of the most ambitious took place Sunday at Jordan Hall with the world premiere of Illuminessence, an interfaith oratorio by Silvio Amato commissioned by the Vatican to link together the common themes of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This important occasion was entrusted to Benjamin Zander, the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, members of the NEC Youth Chorale, and the Handel and Haydn Young Men’s and Young Women’s Choruses. The audience was welcomed by Mayor Thomas Menino, remembering the victims of that tragic day, particularly those with Massachusetts ties, and thanking the sponsors who made this event possible.
The concert got underway with a rousing performance of the national anthem which only raised my hackles near the end when the combined choruses collectively took a breath between “star-spangled” and “banner.” The fact that this has become nearly standard practice makes it no less revolting. With 85 singers, stagger-breathing ought to be a cinch for those youthful singers who may not yet have developed sufficient breath control to sing the whole phrase in one breath. The preparing conductors need to give as much thought to the words as to the notes.
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings followed. Early on there was some tentative playing and very approximate ensemble — no doubt due to the scant rehearsal time for a concert in early September — but things soon fell into place. Passion was held in check for some time, but when it came, Zander and his players didn’t stint. The desired catharsis was fully achieved.
The orchestra and the 14-year-old Japanese-American violinist Yuki Beppu then favored us with the famous “Meditation” from Jules Massenet’s Thaïs. It was fitting that Beppu’s dress was quasi-seraphic, because her playing was like a celestial vision. Additionally, Zander obtained a luscious sound from the orchestra. At the reprise of the main theme, the choruses added some gorgeous ambience by softly doubling the orchestral accompaniment in vocalise. This performance was pure rapture.
The main event welcomed to the stage three soloists: soprano Kirsten Scott, mezzo-soprano Cristina Bakhoum, and tenor Michael Kuhn. It should be noted that some Islamic sects discourage setting prayers from the Quran to music, and Amato consulted imams in an effort to solve this problem. In fact, he ultimately found multiple solutions, one of which began the piece: a recording of an imam chanting, soon joined by the lower orchestral instruments. When the recording finished, the soloists, each in succession, began the “Canticle of Creatures,” eventually joined by the choruses. This was an interesting Italian text with references to “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” “Brothers Wind and Air,” “Sister Water,” “Brother Fire,” “Mother Earth,” and “Sister Death” Although a translation was provided, alignment problems regrettably left the last nine lines of Italian untranslated, and the source of the text was not indicated. The soloists and choruses sang expressively and with good diction, though at times I found myself wishing the music were a little more melodically memorable.
The second section, Sura 1: Al-Fatiha set the best-known Islamic prayer, “Bismillaah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem” (In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful). Interestingly, the music I found most memorable, generally speaking, was that which set Islamic and Jewish texts. I felt the Semitic material was more colorful and interesting, particularly in its creative use of orchestral colors. (How much credit for this goes to Amato and how much to his orchestrator, Simone Scazzocchio, I cannot say.) The Sura 1, for instance, began with a variety of percussion and wind instruments and had the character of a middle-Eastern dance. Again, a recording of an imam was used before the prayer was actually sung by soloists and choruses. The choruses demonstrated impressive dynamic control with sudden crescendos as well as subito pianos. All three soloists displayed very attractive lyric (i.e., lighter) voices that unfortunately got buried fairly regularly from this movement on. Either the orchestral accompaniment needs to be lightened considerably, or soloists of greater vocal heft need to be selected. The full orchestra (this one had 83 players) should perhaps be reserved for accompanying the full chorus.
The following movement, the Jewish prayer Adon Olam, also began with percussion, this time including tambourine, soon joined by an undulating figure in the orchestra. Though it was often difficult to follow the printed text, it would be churlish to quibble about choral diction in languages as unfamiliar as Arabic and Hebrew. The choruses and soloists all sang with commitment and conviction, and the spirit, if not always the letter, of the texts came through. After a tender ending, the Adon Olam led without pause into the Christian prayer, Praise the LORD, which began in Latin, later switching to the English translation. This was a joyous hymn of praise, commanding all creation to render praise: everything from sea monsters to mountains to cedars and fruit trees. This had some delicious syncopations and enjoyable tunes, though even the massed choruses were momentarily swamped by the surging orchestra.
Praise the LORD overlapped with the next section, O my father. The lighter orchestration here allowed the soloists to be heard distinctly. They were expressive and musical, though Kuhn had an unfortunate tendency to fracture the legato by aspirating vowels on melismas. There was an especially affecting passage when the orchestra went silent and the soloists were accompanied solely by the choruses.
The last three movements — Elohai (My God, the soul You placed within me is pure), Sura 2: Al-Baqara (Oh! Men adore your God), and Mio Ospite (My Guest) — were performed without pause. The emphasis was on choral/orchestral textures to which the soloists’ voices were sometimes added. If it was again challenging to discern where one language ended and the next began, the engagement and determination of all singers and players to make a statement about the unity of the three faiths was never in doubt. The end of the final prayer was interestingly unorthodox: “How deceiving to think of you faraway: illusionary space to my autonomy and yours: you can only conceal yourself in the present, you can only be in conflict, you cannot run from the destiny of your beloved image.” At the conclusion there was a standing ovation, and the composer, orchestrator, and conductors of the choruses came forward to take their well-earned bows.
The concert concluded with an excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony including the first choral statement of the Ode to Joy. Those of us a bit older than the orchestra and chorus members will remember a similar occasion in 1989 when Leonard Bernstein conducted the entire Ninth Symphony in Berlin at the time the Berlin Wall fell, reuniting East and West; he too used the Ode to Joy (or Freedom — he replaced “Freude” with “Freiheit”) as a hymn celebrating the universal brotherhood of humankind. An insert to our printed programs gave the German text in phonetic equivalents so that the audience could join in. For me, this was an ideal commemoration using the power of music: commencing somberly and in reverence, observing the common ground of three often conflicting faiths, and going out with joyous optimism and belief that these conflicts can one day be overcome. Kudos to Benjamin Zander and all his performers who did an extraordinary job with limited rehearsal time. And thanks to Silvio Amato and Simone Scazzocchio for undertaking this unusual challenge that, we trust, will be positively received by Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike.