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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Responding to tragedy

By Norman Lebrecht / September 19, 2001

TWO nights after disaster struck New York and the heart of civilisation, the lights went up on Broadway and, after a minute's silence, it was showtime again.

Both practically and morally, it was the only thing to do. To have stayed shut would have been to give an enemy the victory of disrupting the way of life he seeks to destroy. Biting lips and choking back tears, Americans surged to the theatre to keep one of the key dates in the national calendar: the opening of the new entertainment season. Hesitantly, but on the whole heroically, the arts blinked back to life across the metropolitan United States.

The New York Philharmonic clocked in late, after being stranded for two nights in Stuttgart, their instruments in Cologne. They have dropped their opening gala for a solemn concert tomorrow of Brahms's German Requiem. The Metropolitan Opera is going ahead with its gala but adding an extra fundraiser for victim relief. Carnegie Hall had to call off a Rachmaninov retrospective for want of the Philharmonia Orchestra, which could not leave London.

Several orchestras, led by Dallas, opened the season with Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, which has been America's obsequy of choice since it was heard at Franklin D Roosevelt's funeral in 1945. Cleveland curtailed its curtain-raiser to a single symphony, Mahler's Fifth, its funereal entry befitting the national mood.

Los Angeles Opera lost Lohengrin, when its new chief conductor Kent Nagano was grounded in Frankfurt while shuttling across from his day-job at the German Symphony Orchestra. The company also lost its newish Oxford-educated chief executive, Ian White-Thomson, in what appears to have been a bust-up with artistic director Placido Domingo over the projected costs of a Hollywoodish Ring. In opera, it takes more than a war to alter the plot.

Hollywood held back its new disaster movies and NBC suspended a slew of new comedies, but the only stage cancellation has been a New York revival of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, which refers to an attack on the White House. For the most part, show people dusted themselves off and got on with the show. "What I have to do is be here for my people," said a Washington director, his window overlooking the shattered Pentagon.

In Europe, three Berlin orchestras, under conductors Thielemann, Gielen and Rattle, gave a televised memorial concert on Sunday. At the Lucerne Festival, before conducting Mahler's Seventh, Daniel Barenboim told the audience: "Maybe, when words are inadequate, music can express the feelings we all have."

Yet, responsibly as the arts responded, the response felt unequal to the occasion. Even Leonard Slatkin's admirably judged readjustment of the BBC's Last Night of the Proms, striking just the right note between lament and hope, failed to transcend the terrible circumstances. In the first week of an unconventional war, the arts were no more capable than politicians of conveying anything greater than the obvious - and no politician struck the chord that Ronald Reagan did when he quoted from a poem, John Magee's High Flight, after the crash of the Challenger space mission.

What we sorely needed was to hear from a composer, a poet, an artist who could, in an instant, release pent-up sentiments and illuminate the stricken landscape. Art, however, has lost the facility for rapid reaction or even considered response. What Picasso achieved in Guernica and Brecht in Mother Courage is no longer acceptable, or perhaps available, to painters and playwrights of the postmodern age.

During the Second World War, composers gave vent freely to personal experience - Shostakovich in the Seventh and Eighth symphonies, Vaughan Williams in the Fifth, Bartok in Concerto for Orchestra, Schoenberg in A Survivor from Warsaw. To demand the same today of a composer would be to invite derision - or, worse, a movie score.

So modern history goes unrecorded in music. There is no masterpiece inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War or the deaths of Rajiv Gandhi and Yitzhak Rabin. That is not how art functions any more. Ask a composer to respond to epic tragedy and he will recoil at the imagined insult. "That would just be journalism," is the conditioned response.

Our world is poorer for their reticence. Watching the funerals of New York firemen, fallen in the course of duty, I was reminded of Gustav Mahler, standing at his New York hotel window on the Sunday afternoon of February 16, 1908, tears trickling down his cheeks as he watched the passing cortege of a deputy fire chief who had died in a blazing building.

A muffled drum-stroke reached his ear from the street below. Mahler inserted the sound at the start of the finale of his unfinished Tenth Symphony, repeating it six times, perhaps in self-elegy. He was not afraid to show feeling or confront reality. What music needs in these troubled days is more reaction, less contrivance.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




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