Pulitzer Prize-winning tribute to 9/11 victims has R.I. premiere at Bicho Concert

Teresa Coffman and Edward Markward review the score of
"On the Transmigration of Souls."
While the annual Bicho Family Memorial Scholarship Concert represents a long-standing tradition at RIC – 31 years to be exact – the upcoming concert should prove to be a transformative experience, as it will feature the Rhode Island premiere of John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls.”

The performance featuring the RIC Symphony Orchestra and RIC Chorus – will take place on Monday, April 27, at 8 p.m. in the Auditorium in Roberts Hall.

Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, Adams’ work had its first performance on Sept. 19, 2002, and the following year, it earned the Pulitzer Prize.

The work is unconventional in several aspects.

“Transmigration” falls outside of traditional genres, being neither a requiem nor any conventional kind of memorial. The composer chooses to call the piece a “memory space,” which he defined as “a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions.”

Instead of an authored text, the words of “On the Transmigration of Souls” consist of fragments taken from missing-persons posters and memorials found near the World Trade Center ruins, as well as excerpts from newspaper articles.

Adams also employs street sounds and a pre-recorded reading of victims’ names by family and friends to accompany an expansive complement of orchestral and choral forces, which includes a children’s chorus.

Adams himself is an interesting phenomenon. Although he first earned a reputation as an avant-garde minimalist, a recent survey conducted by the American Symphony Orchestra League found him to be the most frequently performed living American composer.

A look at some of his operas shows that Adams gravitates toward contemporary topics. His first opera, Nixon in China, dealt with Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking 1972 visit to that country. His second, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” dramatized the hijacking of the cruise ship “Achille Lauro” by Palestinian terrorists and the killing of the Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer.

Adams’ “Dr. Atomic,” which had its Metropolitan Opera debut in the fall of 2008, portrays the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atom bomb.

What brings “On the Transmigration of Souls” to Rhode Island College’s Bicho Concert is a mutual admiration for the piece by two of the College’s music faculty, Teresa Coffman, who directs the Rhode Island College Chorus, and Edward Markward, who conducts the Symphony Orchestra, the two principal ensembles on the program.

The Rhode Island Children’s Chorus, under the leadership of 2000 RIC alumna Christine Noel, will also be participating in the Adams piece.

The program will also include Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Tod und Verklärung” (Death and Transfiguration) and Franz Schubert’s Mass in G. The Schubert will feature RIC faculty soloists Kara Lund, soprano; Fredric Scheff ’83, tenor; and Tianxu Zhou, baritone.

Markward and Coffman, who have collaborated on several Bicho Concerts, joining forces last year on Beethoven’s Ninth and Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” have been hoping to perform Transmigration for several years.

Discussing the upcoming concert in Markward’s office on campus, Coffman recalled that Markward handed her a disc and said, “You’ve got to listen to this.”

She did, and soon after responded, “I want to do this sometime.”

“It’s a terrific work,” commented Markward, “Adams wanted something that was not national but individual; he wanted something that would be ongoing.

“There’s a great piece by Elie Siegmeister called “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,” but it’s sort of date specific. Whereas this, Adams hoped, would not be.

“I liken it to the “German Requiem” of Brahms in that it is for the living as much as it is for the deceased. It’s curious how Adams viewed the transmigration aspect, the soul aspect. It was not necessarily just the souls of the dead but that we are all in a different place – that we, the living, have transmigrated, after such an event.”

“I agree,” said Coffman, who then commented on Adams’ reaction to the commission. “Ed [Markward] and I have talked about the fact that Adams didn’t want to do it. The New York Philharmonic approached him,” she said.

Markward added, “His statement was ‘who turns down the New York Philharmonic,’ but it was such a touchy subject and as he put it, the national grieving became orgiastic after a while.

“In my opinion people began to use 9/11 as an excuse for not doing anything else. Adams saw that, and that’s one reason he focused on the individual rather than the national tragedy.”

While rehearsals for “Transmigration” are still in the early stages, students are feeling the emotional impact of the work, especially the chorus, which is learning a text that vacillates between denial and grief and that references victims who have passed virtually without a trace.

Adams’ choices for the text range from a simple and direct “remember” to the chilling “I wanted to dig him out. I know just where he is.”

The latter comment according to both Markward and Coffman is one of the hardest to rehearse.

“I promised the kids,” noted Coffman, “and I am trying to make sure that I keep this promise, that we won’t end a rehearsal with the Adams, because you just can’t walk out with that in your blood.”

But the difficulties of performing “On the Transmigration of Souls” are technical as well.

Markward pointed out one kind of difficulty. “When the chorus begins a new section, the orchestra has already begun it or will begin it after, so there’s always a dovetailing. That’s part of the minimalistic technique,” he said.

“And it needs to sound seamless,” added Coffman, “and it needs to sound completely natural.

“When I first started looking at the Adams piece, I thought ‘it’s not as hard as it could be so don’t make it any harder than it is.’ I personally just didn’t want to rehearse this so long that the singers got complacent about it or tired of it.”

Markward interjected, “That’s the hard thing about the art form. You have to practice something until you almost don’t think about it, because while you’re thinking, you’re stumbling.”

And Coffman added, “You have to make it fresh every single rehearsal, and then the performance has to sound like your moment in time.”

Adams’ dovetailing procedure poses some interesting problems, as Coffman remarked, especially when the chorus comes in without the orchestra and needs pitch cues, “There’s all this street noise and they have to come in on a D and an A, so we’re planting little pitch devices [such as tuning forks] in the choir.”

The Bicho concert will not be the first time audiences at the Rhode Island College have heard John Adams’ music. Markward has conducted a pair of the composer’s shorter works, “The Chairman Dances” and “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.”

They are demanding works, but Markward emphasized that Transmigration has “the same difficulty, but it’s magnified, because it’s longer.” “Short Ride,” for instance, is only four minutes, while “Transmigration” is 25.

‘I think what makes this difficult too,” added Coffman, “is the fact that there are no movements. It’s not like here’s five minutes and everybody breathes and re-groups. It’s continuous for those 25 minutes.”

According to Coffman, the Schubert Mass in G is “the most cheerful piece” on the

program and Schubert’s most popular work in the form, although it remained unpublished in his lifetime.

His shortest and most intimate Mass, the 1815 work was completed in six days, if the manuscript dates are reliable, when Schubert was around 18, and was probably first performed at his family's church in Lichtenthal. This performance will use a version for strings, which, except for the absence of an organ, follows the original instrumentation.

The three soloists for the Mass are all faculty members at the College. Soprano Kara Lund has performed the roles of Countess Almaviva, the Merry Widow, the Sandman and Giuletta, among others, and her concert repertoire has included Haydn, Bach, Copland and Tippett.

Fredric Scheff, tenor, has appeared from coast to coast in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” and recently sang the roles of Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana and the Witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” both Opera Providence productions.

Originally from Beijing, China, baritone Tianxu Zhou continues to perform locally and internationally, including a recent performance of Monteverdi's “Vespers” with the Washington Chorus and National Symphony Orchestra.

Richard Strauss’ “Tod und Verklärung” (Death and Transfiguration), like “Transmigration,” focuses on death, but strictly from the individual’s perspective. Written in 1888–89, when Strauss was around 25, the work dramatizes the final struggles of an artist who is obsessed by an artistic ideal and is transfigured at death to recognize his ideal in eternity.

“Tod und Verklärung” remains one of Markward’s favorite Strauss pieces, along with the suite from the opera “Der Rosenkavlier.”

Markward explained, “It is the one where his ego stayed out of the way pretty much. And I guess it appeals to me because he was so young and because he used the same transfiguration theme in one of the “Four Last Songs” 60 years later. That’s pretty neat to tie your life together like that.”

Markward also related a story about how when Strauss was on his deathbed, he told his daughter, “Helen, it’s just like I wrote it in “Death and Transfiguration,” which has to be one of the more unique comments of old age reflecting back on youth.

In Markward’s view, the three works on the April 27 program all share a common thread in that they touch upon the themes of faith and death. Given that the works span nearly two centuries, it is interesting to look back and contemplate the similarities and differences in the music and the times that Schubert, Strauss and Adams represent, and perhaps measure how far we have or have not progressed.

A donation of $10 is requested for the scholarship fund. Seniors and non-RIC students, $5; RIC students, faculty and staff, free. For tickets, contact the RIC Box Office at (401) 456-8144.