German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), in his 1949 essay, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” claimed, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (transl. by Samuel and Shierry Weber). However, in 1966, Adorno revised his view: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems” (English transl. by E. B. Ashton)—or sing and make music.
Raquel Garcia, Artistic Director of The Philadelphia Chorus, one of the finest and oldest choruses in the region (founded in 1951), brutally aware of “senseless violence . . . prejudice and discrimination being rampant,” shared her fear: “I feel like we are becoming desensitized as these horrid events are more and more common every day.” She concluded, “Let love and unity prevail. Please, let’s all embrace differences and make our world a peaceful place.”
Garcia annually presents winter and spring programs that go way beyond the popular and the tried and true. This year, together with a chorus of 65 singers, 15 orchestra members, and two guest artists – lyric soprano Melanie Sarakatsannis and baritone John David Miles – Garcia dedicated the entire winter concert at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral to The Voice of Peace: Poetry and Music after Auschwitz.
The concert began with “Even When He Is Silent” by Norway’s Kim André Arnesen. It’s based on a text that was found on a wall at the Cologne Concentration Camp.
I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love,
even when there’s no one there.
And I believe in God,
even when he is silent.
I believe through any trial,
there is always a way
But sometimes in this suffering
and hopeless despair
My heart cries for shelter,
to know someone’s there
But a voice rises within me, saying hold on
my child, I’ll give you strength,
I’ll give you hope. Just stay a little while.
I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love
even when there’s no one there
But I believe in God
even when he is silent
I believe through any trial
there is always a way.
May there someday be sunshine
May there someday be happiness
May there someday be love
May there someday be peace….
Arnesen mused, “Imagining what the person who wrote it went through is what makes the world so powerful. They are about hope even in the darkest time of life. Even if your freedom is taken away from you, or the people you love, no one can take your faith and hope away from you.” This work premiered just days after the 2011 terrorist attacks in Oslo and Utoya.
The performance continued with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Grant us peace”), based on the violence during the Spanish Civil War and performed with texts from various sources, including Walt Whitman’s 1861 work of war-fever—“Beat! Beat! Drums!” —set to powerful “rhythms of drums and trumpets, instruments of war . . . even as they shatter every-day peaceful endeavors . . . and obliterate the fundamental civility of reasoned discourse and the compassion which pleas should evoke.”
As she does every year, Garcia paired classical and new works, many of which are rarely heard in Philadelphia, including a new piece by Korea’s Hyun Kook, a composer of over 200 choral compositions. In addition to composing, Professor Kook performs important medical research at Chonnam National University in Korea to find new therapies for heart diseases. He granted The Philadelphia Chorus the right to perform this composition. In a personal note, he wrote, “I have wonderful memories in Philadelphia. My mentor in UPenn will be happy to hear that my piece will be sung in his town!”
The Philadelphia Chorus then presented David Burger’s “T’filah”—a Hebrew prayer, dedicated to Israel: “Give peace to the land and joy to all her inhabitants. Amen.”
We then experienced “Armistice 1918” by Craig Carnahan, based on Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Everyone Sang,” written shortly after the end of World War I. “Some argue that his reference to ‘singing’ literally represents the troops celebration upon receiving news that an armistice had been reached, others, drawing from Sassoon’s own account, see his use of singing as a metaphor for the social revolution he hoped was eminent.” Ultimately, this piece, sung beautifully by this extraordinary chorus like all the other works—no matter their musical complexity and difficulty—celebrated the resilience of the human spirit, in spite of all external adversity.
Later, we heard the famous “Gloria” by John Rutter, Britain’s prolific composer, who wrote it as his first major composition for an American group in 1974—a symphony inspired by Gregorian Chants and New World tempos, where brass and choir combine in such exuberant rhythms that they suggest American jazz and theater.
The Voice of Peace concert took the standing room only audience around the world, including the Jack Jarrett arrangement of Austria’s “Silent Night”—from a wordless rendition to the original German lyrics to the English version; followed by Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu”—a rousing African song; and Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World,” sung in a way that only The Philadelphia Chorus can: both beautiful and thought-provoking—a hallmark of every one of their concerts.
Adorno would have appreciated this extraordinary concert. The audience loved it, gave it a standing ovation—European style—and prolonged applause.
The Voice of Peace: Poetry and Music after Auschwitz concert was performed on Saturday, December 4, 2016 by The Philadelphia Chorus. The Spring Concert of The Philadelphia Chorus will feature the concert version of George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, and other selections, with Iris Fairfax, soprano, and Rocky Sellers, baritone, at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral – 23 South 38th Street in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday, April 2, 2017 at 4:00 PM. Purchase tickets to the Spring Concert online.
*All non-Adorno related quotations come from the detailed program notes of The Voice of Peace program.