We all have our memories of September 11. I had flown to America the evening before, descending along the Hudson river in the dying light and casting a glance at the twin towers as we came in to land at Newark airport. The next morning in leafy Princeton, the 8am news led with Michael Jordan coming out of retirement (basketball). At 9am, a "small" plane had "bumped" into the World Trade Centre...
If music can comfort the grieving, John Adams was an inspired choice to compose a work in response to the tragedy. In earlier works - The Wound Dresser and The Death of Klinghoffer - he has shown quietness, tenderness, gentleness and simplicity in addressing events that transcend words. On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Centre, was first performed on 19 September 2002. This Proms performance, with Adams conducting, was its European premiere.
The work calls for massive forces: huge orchestra and percussion section with quarter-tone piano (as well as a conventionally tuned instrument), quarter-tone violin ensemble, adult and children's choirs and pre-recorded sounds. Out of a hushed beginning - a collage of traffic, footsteps and siren - a child's voice is heard uttering "missing, missing, missing". Wordless chorus, strings and harps enter, playing empty open fifths that offer a serene but bleak soundscape. Sounds of glockenspiels, crotales, bells and triangles speckle the air; the chorus quietly repeats "remember, remember, remember". A solo trumpet figure "borrowed" from Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question floats by.
Soon the words change to "we will miss you", "we love you", "you will never be forgotten", and the names begin, quietly intoned from all parts of the hall. A halo of luminous string sound cradles the words - "eye colour: hazel", "date of birth". Voices are raised with "I wanted to dig him out. I know just where he is", and an angry outburst erupts instrumentally, horns keening, trombones and tubas growling. The roll-call of names returns. The twinkly, distorted sound of the quarter-tone piano, with harps, celeste and piano, eerily suggests water. The cityscape returns: "I see water and buildings." "I love you" are the final words, as the strings quote the tonal resolution of Ives's work.
Adams has written a dignified and moving work that addresses intimacy while skirting sentimentality. In possession of a score, the strands were easy to follow, but I doubt that the audience could have followed so easily. This is not a simple work to balance (especially in this hall) and it may achieve optimum effect via electronic means. Southend Boys' and Southend Girls' choirs, with the BBC Symphony and Chorus, were impressive.
In the late-night Prom 16, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) made its Proms debut with its own orchestra in works by Bach, Mendelssohn and the American composer Libby Larsen. Larsen's I It Am: The Shewings of Julian of Norwich for soloists, choir and orchestra, premiered here, is a BBC co-commission. Larsen was hailed by USA Today as "the only English-speaking composer since Benjamin Britten who matches great verse with fine music so intelligently and expressively". Not exactly: Tippet, Maxwell Davies and MacMillan might claim that epithet. "Useful", "bland", "conventional" spring more readily to mind. The soloists Tamara Matthews, Daniel Taylor and Daniel Lichti made what they could of very "new age/old age" settings. But under the director Greg Funfgeld, the choir and orchestra showed their exemplary skills in Bach and Mendelssohn.