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Reflection: Interfaith concert will counter the racket of chaos

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 3, 2013: This time almost a year ago, I was in Oxford, England, and on a stroll through the university town late one afternoon, I saw a bulletin indicating times of services at Christ Church Cathedral. I got up early the next morning, made my way to the ancient monument of faith, walked in a brilliant dawn through the awe-inspiring quadrangle — and went to church.

Somewhere in mid-service I realized that no matter how affecting the moment I was experiencing might be, the day itself was infamous: Sept. 11, 2012, the 11th anniversary of the assault on the U.S. by murderous terrorists. My mind went home from Great Britain to America, from Oxford to St. Louis, and to the events of that day and the consequences of it, all horrible.

After the dismissal, I greeted the celebrant of the Eucharist, the Rev. George Pattison, the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in Oxford University and a canon of the Cathedral.

I reminded him what day it was. We both fell quiet. What other reaction is appropriate?

Sept. 11 Interfaith Commemoration in Music

Well, actually, there are other appropriate responses, reactions of greater meaning and dynamism, responses entirely more satisfying than standing mute. Lighting real and metaphorical candles is one appropriate response, rather than silently cursing the darkness. And making joyful noises is another, the better to argue with the racket of chaos. 

Such responses are what St. Louis has in store on Sunday afternoon, when Arts and Faith St. Louis presents “The September 11th Interfaith Commemoration in Music: An Appreciation of Religious Diversity” at the Sheldon Concert Hall. This is to be the third consecutive year for the concert.

The concert’s seeds were planted in the spring of 2011, when Opera Theatre of St. Louis produced a revival of John Adams’s opera, "The Death of Klinghoffer," which, among other qualities, is an object lesson in conflicted human relations. Mounting "Klinghoffer" was a risky repertory decision. Because of the subject of the opera — the murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish tourist by Palestinian terrorists aboard a cruise ship — controversy was anticipated.

Opera Theater General Director Timothy O’Leary decided to confront the controversy head-on. He appealed to a number of leaders of religious groups to help him. Out of that appeal appeared Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. She and O’Leary became fast friends and collaborators. They fed one another information, along with courage and faith. 

Their collaboration helped to bring the moving experience of "Klinghoffer" amicably to the 2011 festival season and, later on, inspired the Interfaith Concert. Like "Klinghoffer," the concert was so diverse in its personnel and program it presented risks of misunderstanding. Instead, with everyone there from former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, who’s also an Episcopal priest, to a choir of Muslim women to tenor Patrick Nigh, a St. Louis County Police detective, a spiritual grace that passed all understanding filled the packed hall. If you want to revisit that experience, read the Beacon’s report, 'Make my life like the light of candle' from two years ago.

The internationally celebrated soprano Christine Brewer and the virtuoso jazz pianist Peter Martin are fixed stars in the galaxy of the concert, and they return again this year. An important addition to the roster has been made in the person of the violinist David Halen, concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Other performers from the region, representing different backgrounds and beliefs and musical talents, are on the concert’s bill with Brewer, Martin, Halen and St. Louis Children’s Choirs.

A new group of participants, Abramson-Goldstein said, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "We are reaching out to young people," Abramson-Goldstein said. "And this Mormon group is young!"

This year, the concert is once again to be on a Sunday close to 9/11, Sept. 8.   Unless something untoward happens, a tradition has been born, one that evolves and grows. Last year, an after-concert event was added, a participatory program in which concert-goers can meet the performers in the show and also write appropriate comments on ribbons, which then are fixed to a temporary sculpture at the Sheldon.

Abramson-Goldstein said the after-concert program continues. It is called "The Arts in St. Louis Community Programming Initiative." O’Leary recalled participants reacting with strong emotions to the concert. "This was a way to actually do something in the moment, and it provides a splendid opportunity for this diverse audience to mingle together."

Furthermore, O’Leary was concerned that once the concert was over, its attendant spiritual reckonings would be over for a year as well. Under the leadership of long-time arts advocates Mont Levy and Carolyn Losos, the initiative goes forward. The Contemporary Art Museum is in as a participant. So is the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at Saint Louis U., as well as the St. Louis Public Library, the Shakespeare Festival and COCA.

So back to the question that came to me in England a year ago. What action is appropriate in confronting 9/11?

On Washington Boulevard on Sunday, one of humankind’s most noble and inspired industries is summoned to direct the response. That industry is art, a realization of ideas and beliefs. Art is an answer to our quandary, an answer so telling, so rich, so various, so elevating, so personal, yet so ineffably universal — and so transcendently, wholly, one.

The St. Louis Beacon is a media sponsor of the Arts & Faith concert.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.