On the Transmigration of Souls
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45
Camilla Tilling (soprano)
Russell Braun (baritone)
Saint Louis Symphony Chorus
The Saint Louis Childrens ChoirsConcert Choir
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 1 April, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City
I find it difficult to know what to make of John Adams’s “On the Transmigration of Souls”, both in terms of its musical and its emotional content.
This composition was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for a commemorative concert to mark the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The scoring of the work combines a large orchestra, a mixed chorus (the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus, directed by Amy Kaiser), a children’s choir (the Saint Louis Children’s Concert Choir, directed by Barbara Berner), and a pre-recorded soundtrack that includes both spoken texts and a variety of sounds and noises, including traffic and other street sounds, footsteps, and closing doors. The soundtrack was mixed and played through speakers placed strategically throughout the hall by sound-designer Mark Grey.
Divorced from the powerful emotions evoked by reference to the events of 9/11 – If, say, it were to be performed (untranslated) for non-English speakers who had never heard of 9/11 – this work would have little interest musically. The orchestra’s role is quite restrained through most of the piece, with only a few significant outbursts, and although some of the choral passages are pleasant, the highly repetitive and disjointed texts – both sung by the choruses and spoken on the soundtrack (including recitation of the names of a partial list of those who died in the attack) – serve to distract one from the music, such as it is. Inevitably, therefore, whatever success the piece may achieve must rest squarely on its textual and emotional links to 9/11.
Whether ‘Transmigration’ succeeds in evoking the events of 9/11 in a touching and meaningful way may depend on each listener’s perspective on those events. People with a strong personal connection to the 9/11 attacks may be touched deeply by the work; Adams has said that his reference to the word ‘transmigration’ includes the transformations undergone by those who remain alive but suffer pain at the loss of their loved ones. And for those who were far from New York on that fateful day, ‘Transmigration’ the piece, by providing a tangible connection to the names and words of those who died and those who sought them in vain after the towers’ collapse, may strike a sympathetic chord. I, however, like most New Yorkers, fall into neither of these categories.
Most New Yorkers have vivid memories of 9/11 and have lived with its aftermath on an almost daily basis as the city struggles with how to memorialize the victims while redeveloping the World Trade Center site. Indeed, just a few days prior to this performance, audio-tapes of emergency service workers’ conversations with those trapped in the burning towers were released to the public. For me, Adams’s work did no more than remind of the 9/11 events, thereby invoking my pre-existing emotional reactions to them. It did not provide me with any new insight or offer me, through its art, any solace.
The Brahms work that followed, although composed well over a century ago, owing to its sonic beauty and universal themes of comfort and consolation, provides a more meaningful memorial to those who died on 9/11 than the more specific, but regrettably less beautiful and less touching work composed for that purpose.
Robertson gave a reading of Brahms’s Requiem that quite effectively conveyed the spirit of succour that lies at the heart of this work and distinguishes it from requiems that employ the liturgy of the Latin mass for the dead. This comforting feeling was especially welcome following the disturbing recollections that the Adams work had stirred up. Robertson’s tempos never dragged, and he skilfully kept the vocal and instrumental forces in fine balance throughout.
It is quite a rarity in an extended symphonic work for the violins to remain silent throughout a lengthy opening movement, but this had the effect of establishing a deep and resonant tessitura that coloured the listeners’ perception of the entire work. The playing of the low strings in the opening movement, and especially their interplay with the horns and oboes, was particularly marvellous. The combination of the soprano section of the chorus with the violas was lovely and uplifting, as were the harp arpeggios and pizzicato strings at the movement’s calming conclusion.
The German Requiem demands both vocal power and, to an even greater degree, soft singing from the chorus. The Saint Louis Symphony Chorus was quite excellent on both accounts, shining right down to the pianissimos. The singers were particularly impressive in the fugal passages at the conclusion of the second movement (Isaiah’s prophecy of the joyous return to Zion of the ransomed of the Lord) and the sixth movement (Revelations’ declaration of the worthiness of the Lord to receive glory, honour and power).
Canadian baritone Russell Braun gave a very creditable performance of the solos in the third and sixth movements, but his voice did not seem to carry quite as well throughout the hall as Camilla Tilling’s radiant soprano in the fifth movement. Although one may regret that Brahms did not provide a more extensive part for the soprano in this composition, New Yorkers will have the opportunity to hear the Swedish soprano again when she appears in recital with Julius Drake on 12 May in Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall.