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In the Spirit

After a difficult year, classical music has found religion.

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More than ever these days, it seems, the world needs the consolation and reassurance only music can provide, which doubtless explains the unusual number of major new works with spiritual themes to be performed in New York City this fall.

John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls, a New York Philharmonic commission that has its premiere on September 19 under Lorin Maazel's direction, addresses the tragic events of September 11 using missing-persons flyers and the names of those killed in the attack. Adams says that he intends his piece to be in the spirit of the Schiller ode set by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony (to be heard later in the evening), a poem stating that we are all united by a common bond of humanity.

One fascinating project commissioned by the International Bach Akademie Stuttgart's "Passion 2000 Festival," in honor of the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, is just now reaching New York. Four composers were invited to reinterpret a genre in which Bach set the standard, and two of these works will be performed as part of bam's Next Wave Festival: Osvaldo Golijov's La Pasión Según San Marcos (October 30, November 1 and 2) and Tan Dun's Water Passion (December 11, 13, and 14).

In Golijov's Passion, the news of Jesus' birth is carried by voices and drums, Latin rhythms punctuate the story, and Brazilian instruments help bring the familiar events of the Gospel alive in new, unusually sensuous ways. Seventeen illuminated water bowls, a metaphor for the unity of eternal rituals, dominate Tan Dun's setting of Saint Matthew. The musical texture is punctuated by monk chants, Tuvan overtone singing, Chinese-opera vocal techniques, and electronically processed sounds of ancient string instruments to suggest an atmosphere both archaic and timeless.

The American Composers Orchestra gives the New York premiere of John Harbison's Four Psalms on November 3 in Carnegie Hall, Steven Sloane conducting. Written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, the four psalms are sung in Hebrew and interspersed with English commentary on contemporary Israel by living people.


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