The New York Philharmonic has invited composer John Adams to commemorate the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks with a work titled On the Transmigration of Souls. On September 19, as part of the first subscription program of the 2002-03 season, the Philharmonic and the New York Choral Artists will give the world premiere performance under the baton of music director Lorin Maazel. The work was commissioned by the Philharmonic with Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series and support from an established New York family. (The remainder of the program will consist of Beethoven’s Ninth, which will have been presented on its own the evening before at the Gala Opening Concert celebrating Maazel’s debut as music director.)
Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, which will run about 20 minutes, will feature texts drawn from human testimony emerging from the September 11 events, such as written messages, transcripts of cell phone calls, and first-hand accounts.
Perhaps reacting to concerns that it may still be too soon to create a meaningful work in response to this tragedy, Adams noted, “I fully understand the intensity of emotions that the anniversary of September 11 will bring up, and I will do my best to create a piece that honors those emotions without exploiting them.”
Further, he says, “Clearly, whatever this piece may be, it needs to be in the spirit of those very words of Schiller that will be heard later in the evening [in the Beethoven Ninth Symphony] – that we are all united by a common bond of humanity. That seems to be a fundamental assumption of the American artistic experience as well, whether it be in the words of Whitman, or the music of Ives, and I intend to take my cue from the models they have already set forth.”
Adams is, in some respects, a unique choice for the Philharmonic. Though he is widely regarded as one of the most successful American composers working today, he has come under repeated fire for his controversial portrayal of Palestinian terrorists in his opera The Death of Klinghoffer. Despite such criticism, many in the music community, such as LA Times critic Mark Swed, have championed the striking relevance of the composer’s music and advocated for art that speaks to the times.
Maazel, who reportedly selected the composer for the commission, expressed his confidence in Adams’ ability to create a work of significance. “He is one of the most distinguished composers working today, and I believe that this commission-cast in words and music-will speak to people across the country and around the world in the aftermath of a tragedy that has affected us all.”
Maazel had alluded to the commission when the Philharmonic’s season was announced in January, but declined to give details at that time. He did state, however, that the event could become an annual occurrence.