"Let us make music more beautifully, more eloquently and more devotedly than ever before."
This quote by the great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, in response to a bygone age of equal division, echoed in my mind during a recent performance of American music by Symphony Tacoma.
Just as The News Tribune celebrated a vigilant free press in a recent editorial, we must also celebrate the arts and their power to bring a divided country together.
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The concert, held on Nov. 19 at the Pantages Theater just days after the election, was an example of this.
It opened with Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” introduced in November 1938 on the eve of Hitler’s Kristallnacht pogrom against the Jews — but for most Americans forever associated with the funerals of presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
This is a work of grief, but also one of strength and hope. As the music spilled off the baton of conductor Sarah Ioannides onto the skilled hands of the musicians — and thence to the ears and hearts of the audience — I thought of all that this great piece still has to say, 78 years later, to our wounded, divided country.
Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” the next piece, is from a ballet that celebrates the American frontier. When he wrote it, Copland had no idea of the storyline, which renders the more remarkable this quintessential expression of our land and its people.
The work ends with a set of variations on the Shaker folk tune “Simple Gifts.” Could there be a more fitting manifesto to the American spirit?
Phillip Glass’s 1987 Violin Concerto, arranged for soprano saxophone by Amy Dickson in 2010, brought a more modern, crossover aesthetic to the evening. Like so much of Glass’ music, the concerto is neither classical nor popular music, but a seamless blend of each.
This is direct, unpretentious music — not by a dead European, but by a living American. It captivated the nearly full house at the Pantages Theatre that night.
Finally, we came to Bernstein, first with three dance suites from his musical “On the Town.” Bold, brash, and optimistic, it is a celebration of urban America in all its sophistication, just as “Appalachian Spring” extols the rural and pastoral.
Have we forgotten that it takes both to make our country what it is?
After this, saxophonist Amy Dickson rejoined Ioannides and the orchestra for an encore of “America” from “West Side Story” — and so the concert ended with an Australian soloist and a British-Greek conductor performing music by an American Jew, written to be sung by Puerto Rican immigrants.
The musicians on the stage mirrored the people in the audience, with all sides of the political spectrum included. But for two hours, we knew only unity as we immersed ourselves in this musical celebration of our country’s true spirit.
And when we left the theater, nothing had changed — except perhaps our hearts.
Andy Buelow is executive director of Symphony Tacoma, formerly the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra.