By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
My favorite way to transition to the new year has been to attend the New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace in the grand, awe-inspiring space of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. The music that fills its cavernous space with such pure, sweet sound, inspires contemplation, hope, and even calm against the uncertainty ahead.
The event is the most inspirational and life-affirming – such a contrast to the crassness of most New Year’s Eve festivities.
“Tonight is so important, as we pray for peace, because we renew our commitment to goodwill and hopefulness,” stated Reverend James A. Kowalski, Dean of the Cathedral. “We dare to believe again that mean spiritedness and division must not have the final word. We invite the Spirit of Light to empower and embolden us, as we cast off despair and cynicism, and reaffirm that we will choose fairness, justice and kindness over the shallowness and destruction of ‘winner take all’ or ‘to the victor goes the spoils.’ As global citizens, we pray that the world will also be drawn to that light. We acknowledge that we must do our part to brighten and represent that light – across faiths, cultures and geographies to build more just societies.”
“We come because we care about justice, fairness, poverty, morality… we care about peace,” said the broadcast journalist Harry Smith. “But what we know now is that caring about these things is not enough. Peace needs to be won, justice needs to be fought for, causes need to be championed, poverty needs to be abolished.” Desire and good intentions aren’t enough, he said. These causes need “our involvement; movements need a head; legislators need new members. ..Causes without participating is little more than idle fantasy,” he said, adding a jibe at those who did not vote.
This year’s concert was especially poignant, featuring a New York Premier of “Light Shall Lift Us,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell, a musical response to the tragedy that occurred at Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016: the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. The inspirational work, which they dedicated to the victims and survivors of the massacre, was premiered June 16, 2016 in “One Voice Orlando,” a benefit concert Campbell helped organize with Opera Orlando. (A portion can be heard at youtube, https://youtu.be/YA9NozeWEcc).
I recalled sadly that last year’s Concert for Peace featured the world premiere of “Prelude and Spiritual for Mother Emanuel,” by librettist Virginia Sirota and composer Robert Sirota, honoring the victims of the Charleston massacre.
Judy Collins, the Cathedral’s Artist in Residence, spoke and sang of her 50 year friendship and collaboration with Leonard Cohen, that began with his composition which has become so identified with her, “Suzanne” which she recorded in 1966. (She said he also encouraged her to write her own music.) It was kind of a tribute to all those lost this past year. (See youtube, https://youtu.be/3lQg5QKDWt4)
Then, in a nod to current affairs and challenges ahead, she “read” and sang a letter to Vladimir Putin that recalled her tour of Russia at the age of 26 and what she saw there, interspersing it with refrains of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” her sweet, melodic voice ringing through the cavernous cathedral. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5fFU-f35oE).
Collins finished by leading “Amazing Grace.” (see youtube, https://youtu.be/NJU2k3fsQ9s)
Jason Robert Brown, Tony-Award-winning composer and lyricist, performed his “To Build A Home,” portraying an immigrant’s arrival to the heartland of the USA, from his musical The Bridges of Madison County, joined by soloist Elizabeth Stanley, who starred in the musical’s national tour.
Brown also performed a new composition, ‘Hope.”
The concert also featured the world premiere of a stunning choral piece, “Come, Lord, And Tarry Not,” from a new oratorio by composer Georgia Stitt, who played the piano and soprano Jamet Pittman and Randy Landau on bass.
Kent Tritle, Director of Cathedral Music, began this year’s concert with selections from Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, and finished with the optimism of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Gloria/Et in terra pax from the monumental Mass in B Minor, and the beloved gospel song “This Little Light of Mine,” led by soloist Jamet Pittman, to herald the coming of the new year.
The “Light Shall Lift Us” celebration – which is offered as a free concert (though general admission and reserved seat tickets are available) culminated with the light of thousands of candles held aloft by audience members.
Founded by Leonard Bernstein in 1984, the annual New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace is a signature Cathedral event, for the Episcopal church which prides itself as being a “unifying center of intellectual light and leadership, embracing people from across faiths and communities. There are concerts and events throughout the year.
The Cathedral itself is a marvel. Originally designed in 1888, with construction beginning in 1892, the cathedral has undergone radical stylistic changes and the interruption of the two World Wars. It started out in Byzantine Revival-Romanesque Revival style, but the plan was changed to Gothic Revival in 1909. A major fire on December 18, 2001 caused the cathedral to be closed for repairs until 2008. It remains unfinished with construction and restoration a continuing process – which inside, only adds to the mystique of the place. It boasts being the largest Gothic cathedral, and may be the world’s largest Anglican cathedral and church; it is also the fourth largest Christian church in the world.
The cathedral houses one of the nation’s premier textile conservation laboratories to conserve the cathedral’s textiles, including the Barberini tapestries. The laboratory also conserves tapestries, needlepoint, upholstery, costumes, and other textiles for clients.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue (at 112th Street), New York, NY 10025, 212-316-7468, www.stjohndivine.org.
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