The New York Philharmonic was scheduled to open its 2001-02 season on Sept. 20 with its annual gala, featuring a program that probably no one remembers now. After 9/11, when the entire city was struggling to find its footing in a changed world, the Philharmonic announced that the evening would instead be a benefit built around a single work, Brahms’s “German Requiem.” I have often turned to this piece in times of grief and sent it to friends going through their own dark times. It’s been called a requiem for the living, and its words, from various books of the Bible, bear out the description. “Blessed are they that mourn,” it begins, in English translation, “for they shall be comforted.” And later: “How lovely is Thy dwelling place.” Overall, I find it, despite the many stirring passages, an extraordinarily calming work.
When that concert was announced, I simply had to be there. Betty Buckley was opening Lincoln Center’s American Songbook season that week, which was tempting, but as I told my Betty Buckley connection, who had lost his own wife just days before 9/11, “I don’t think I want to hear any music until the Brahms Requiem.” And so I took my seat in a third-tier box after passing through the first security check I can remember at Avery Fisher Hall.
As it turned out, the Requiem was not the only piece on the program, which began with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The audience rose and, one by one, started singing. Ordinarily I’m not one for patriotic displays, especially in the Bush era, but how is one invited to sing with the New York Philharmonic? So I stood and sang. Almost everyone takes “The Star-Spangled Banner” too slowly, awed by its status as the national anthem; since the melody was originally a drinking song, it should bounce along, not leave you panting for breath in the middle of a line that’s gone on too long. But that, of course, would have been inappropriate to the occasion. The anthem over, we sat again, listening to speeches and a request that there be no applause at the end, that the audience and musicians simply file out in silence. And so, after 70 minutes of meditation to Brahms’s music, we did.
These may be among my most vivid 9/11 memories because I videotaped the broadcast of the concert (copying it to DVD as time marched on) and have watched it on 9/11 most years since. It’s half of my small private commemoration; the other is my tradition of wearing the dress I wore to work that day, and the day after, and the day after that while camping out with friends downtown until the subways started running again and I could go home. Each year on the DVD, Beverly Sills, alive again for the 90 minutes of the program, gives the television a somber welcome. Members of the New York Choral Artists shown in closeup have become old friends. Look! There’s the soprano with the wavy red hair! The strawberry-blonde with curly hair and gold wire-rims! The slim, clear-eyed brunette with the chic short wedge cut. I don’t know any of their names, but of course I recognize Glenn Dicterow, the concertmaster, who also has a closeup. No face speaks more eloquently than that of the conductor, Kurt Masur. Except in the rare concert hall like the Berlin Philharmonic’s, which has seating behind the orchestra, all concertgoers generally see of a conductor in action is his back. For the broadcast, cameras were placed upstage directly opposite Masur, and his face registers just about every emotion New Yorkers were feeling in those days: shock, incomprehension, sadness, weariness, regret. Masur’s, though, has one more layer: joy in his artistry (he’s often seen singing along, or at least lip-synching) and the gift it gave New Yorkers, who needed one right about then. As the music softly ends, Masur closes his eyes for a long moment; when they open, the concert is over.
I spent some days thinking about what to wear the Philharmonic’s 10th-anniversary concert on Sept. 10, for broadcast on the 11th. The 9/11 dress was first choice, but its abstract swirl of greens, blues and oranges seemed of questionable taste. Another possibility was the dressy two-piece I had worn to a party the night of Sept. 10, 2001, on a 57th Street roof deck from which I saw the World Trade Center standing for the last time, but its vermilion silk also seemed a little too vibrant. Perhaps usher black, if I was unexpectedly called to work the matinee of “War Horse” next door to Avery Fisher? In the end I settled on the 9/11 dress, and was neither sorry nor much outclassed.
“A Concert for New York” followed the format of the 2001 concert: “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a single classical work, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”). A new music director stood in Masur’s place at the podium: Alan Gilbert, beginning his third season. (Lorin Maazel’s seven-year tenure had come and gone in between. The program also served as a reminder that Mahler himself had also been the Philarmonic’s music director, from 1909 to 1911.) Gilbert took the national anthem a bit faster than Masur, but not much; once again the audience sang along. Mercifully, he made the only speech of the evening, and a brief one.
Most apparent was the shift in mood. Gone was the heaviness of spirit at the 2001 concert. This was an occasion for joy, nowhere more evident than in the smile of soprano Michelle De Young as she sat patiently waiting for her solos.
Time has brought other changes, too. I couldn’t help noticing how many women were now playing in the orchestra, many of them young and Asian. Principal bassoonist Judith LeClair, visible in the 2001 concert video, is still in place, her short hair gone stylishly white; Glenn Dicterow seems barely aged. Lives and voices change in a decade, so I was not surprised that two of my old friends seemed to be missing from the chorus, the redhead and the one with the wire rims. I did spot the slim brunette, though; her face looks thinner, her wedge is starting to gray at the temples and she now wears glasses over those clear eyes. In other signs of the times, the five-minute pause Mahler specified after the first movement clocked in at 33 seconds, just long enough to bring the soloists onstage; in this era of electronic distractions and reduced attention spans, it’s now a pause for checking e-mail rather than, as the composer put it, “for recollection.” (Not that I’m immune: on Sunday night, listening to the DVD of the 2001 concert in the background while waiting for the 2011 broadcast to begin, I was online reading the New York Times review of the night before, not yet in print.)
In sharp contrast with the silent clearing of the hall 10 years ago, this concert concluded to an immediate standing ovation and rapturous applause that lasted 10 minutes, far longer than New York standards – so long, in fact, that the musicians didn’t seem to know whether it was time to go. The ovation seemed a fitting coda to a musical recovery that had begun 10 years before, in a concert dedicated to the 9/11 victims and “to the indomitable spirit of all who survive, mourn and rebuild.” Some might be tempted to interpret Saturday’s concert, with its message of “remembrance and renewal,” of resurrection and resilience, as a sign that New York is back. In truth, we never left.