Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the November 21,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Musicians Giving Thanks
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, managers
of the holiday are now focusing on details, working out which dishes
to serve and how to present them, devising seating plans, and
for transportation from the airport. Nevertheless, concentrating on
the immediate in no way takes away from the meaning of the holiday.
While wondering whether to put tequila in the cranberry sauce, one
can simultaneously be grateful for friends and family, for good health
or for good fortune. The specific and the general play off against
each other like mind and body as separate aspects of human life. A
corresponding duple division proves to be common among area musicians
active since September 11.
For which music are you most thankful at this time? was the question
I asked three artists. My interviewees were harpsichordist Janet
of Le Triomphe de l’Amour, the baroque chamber group; Zdenek Macal,
artistic director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO); and
pianist Robert Taub, recently artist-in-residence at the Institute
for Advanced Study, and currently the visiting artist at Princeton
Day School. To varying degrees, they resisted answering the question.
I decided not to pressure them to name particular pieces, but,
to listen to their experiences since the devastation at the World
Besides her musical experiences, Janet Palumbo had a brush with the
September 11 aftermath: the anthrax threat. "I took 900 season
brochures to the Hamilton Post Office on the wrong day," she says,
with a laugh. "Taking care of the bulk mailing is one of my
jobs since we’re just a little arts organization." As she watched
a TV newscast in the evening, she saw a picture of the bulk mail area
and heard that anybody who had been at the place should be taking
Cipro. After her initial disbelief at being part of the national news,
she underwent seven days of Cipro treatment. "The worst
is that Cipro can make you feel hypoglycemic within hours," she
says. "I ate a lot of pretzels for a week. I would alternately
feel shaky, eat something, and then feel sleepy. Luckily it was not
the week I was preparing for a concert."
The concert for which Palumbo would prepare was the first of
five-concert season. The group opened its 11th season on November
10 with a program of four baroque German masterworks. By performance
time, Palumbo was ready. The role of the harpsichordist in music of
this genre is unrelenting; the instrument is almost constantly active,
providing an elaborated version of the underlying harmonies.
"One of the other kinds of music that I play," says Palumbo,
"is for an English country dance group, Upton Inn." The group
decided to go ahead with their dance scheduled for the week after
September 11. "It was probably the first time I sat down to play
music after September 11," Palumbo says. "It was one of those
times when you sit down and play and everything comes together. It
was like one mind playing the music. That’s the reason people play
chamber music. It was not complicated music. When it came together
like that, I almost cried. It was the first joy that entered my heart
since September 11."
"So I’m thankful for the music that I get to play with other
Palumbo concludes, "thankful for the act of playing with others,
and reaching that shared consciousness with others. It’s true for
the professional musicians in Triomphe, the amateurs in Upton Inn,
and accompanying my kids for their music lessons."
For Zdenek Macal, the first concert of the New Jersey Symphony
on September 13 brought a heightened sense of shared experience among
musicians and audience. Macal scrapped the upbeat program he had
scheduled, one that had brought him much anticipatory joy until the
World Trade Center disaster. Until September 11, he basked in the
pleasure of having recruited 18 trumpets for a program called
Madness," and having persuaded his old friend Doc Severinsen to
master the E-flat trumpet and learn the Hummel Trumpet Concerto. But
Macal quickly changed course.
"Fanfares and celebration are not appropriate in these times,"
he says. "I refused to conduct the original program. We played
Beethoven’s Third Symphony, `Eroica,’ because of its Funeral March
movement and because of the last movement, with its hope for the
The recast program also included Bach’s "Air on the G String"
and Aaron Copland’s "Fanfare for the Common Man."
But Macal still had a problem. He was uneasy at the
prospect of opening with the national anthem. "My idea of the
`Star Spangled Banner’ is celebratory," he says. "And I didn’t
want to play it. In the night, I couldn’t sleep, and I was thinking
of the `Star Spangled Banner.’ I imagined it with only strings, soft
"At the concert there were speeches and a priest prayed. I went
out and didn’t take a bow. I conducted the `Star Spangled Banner’
in a slow pianissimo, very free, with much rubato." As Macal sings
into the telephone softly, slowly, and with rubato, I experience a
chill. "The audience sang along pianissimo. I had 2,000 people
in my hand. At the end I signaled no applause and went directly to
the Bach. After the Bach, I signaled no applause, and left the stage
because I was crying. My heart was crying. I just tried to find a
way off the stage. Many of the musicians were crying. They said, `We
understand what you wanted.’ Music is comforting, your heart shows
the way you should go."
Macal willingly singles out Gustav Mahler as a composer particularly
suited for difficult times, though he does not name any particular
works. He recalls that in his own life, his esteem for Mahler came
on the heels of his enthusiasm for Richard Strauss. "As a very
young man I had a strong response to Richard Strauss," he says.
"His opera, symphonic music, and songs spoke to me very directly
because of their complexity of sound and their sheer beauty. When
I looked at Strauss scores, I got wild because of their complexity.
It was so different from Mozart and Haydn." The music of Richard
Strauss is the focus of the NJSO’s three-week festival, coming up
in January, 2002.
"Strauss is good when you’re a teenager; then you grow up,"
Macal continues. "Then comes Mahler. You cannot say anything more.
Just pray or listen to Mahler."
"Mahler is a composer who will stay forever. Other composers are
small peaks against this Mount Everest. His work can give pleasure,
excitement, sadness, comfort, and hope. It has so much emotion,
and desperation. You can find everything in his music. His `Four Last
Songs’ fits in any time. Mahler will survive through the 21st and
22nd centuries. He lived on the brink of the 20th century, but his
music was not understood till today. He’s important before and after
September 11. Even more after."
For Robert Taub three performances since September 11 stand out.
the end of September, Taub inaugurated a new Steinway concert grand
and a new concert series at Emory and Henry College, in Emory,
In early October, he played an all-Beethoven program in London,
In late October he participated in an all-Stravinsky program at Weill
Recital Hall with Metropolitan Opera’s James Levine conducting and
principal singers from the Met. "They were three completely
programs in two different countries," Taub says. And yet they
evoked similar reactions from him. In Princeton, he led an evening
of music and conversation at the Princeton Day School on November
16, playing works by Beethoven and Chopin.
"Since September 11," Taub says, "I am most thankful for
my family, my wife and children." He is the father of three.
I play, I feel that the audience becomes an extended family. We all
go through a spiritual experience together, regardless of location
"There are other things that I’m thankful for," Taub says,
"like that this is a beautiful day. I’m thankful that I can travel
to all the corners of the world with this music inside of me. I only
need a piano and I can wiggle my fingers, and out it comes. I’m
that I’m able to share."
Like Palumbo and Macal, Taub vividly remembers the first
concert he gave after September 11, the Emory, Virginia performance.
"All the events were very fresh in everyone’s mind," he says.
"I decided against saying anything, and for letting the music
speak for itself. After the set program, I decided that it was
for an encore. I preferred several moments of introspection to
a virtuoso work."
"I never plan my encores," Taub says. "There’s a group
of pieces that I play as encores. They’re in my fingers. Sometimes
I decide which encore to play while I’m sitting down at the piano.
That’s part of the fun." On this occasion, Taub played his own
transcription of the Adagio from Bach’s "Toccata, Adagio and
in C major for organ, which he calls "a small intimate work by
Bach that reflects the mood and quality of introspection."
"When I finished, there was a long, moment of silence, simply
because applause was not appropriate and nobody wanted to break the
silence. Eventually, applause started. It was not directed toward
me or the music, but was a reaffirmation that we’re all in this
We really became as one."
"Audiences are always attentive," Taub says, "but there’s
something special now. Arts are a way of feeling different kinds of
emotion. It’s a way of feeling things different from our daily life.
This recognition has been renewed. It just radiates. When I’m
now, I feel that I’m putting myself across beyond the stage. I sense
attentiveness and appreciation coming back. When people come back
stage after a concert and speak, that’s when I realize that audiences
are renewing the idea that a musical evening or afternoon is really
special. Now the simple things mean more than usual."
— Elaine Strauss
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