2016: A Memory to Keep
When I first heard that David Lang was composing a piece for a thousand voices, professional and amateur, to be performed outdoors around the fountain in Lincoln Center Plaza, the idea seemed a little gimmicky. Still, I was curious about the piece, titled “the public domain.”
Alas, on the afternoon of the performance, a Saturday in mid-August, the weather was brutal, with the temperature hovering in the mid-90s and the “feels like” indicator registering 105 degrees. Performing music outdoors always seems like a great idea until uncooperative conditions intervene. On this day, you could hardly stand still in an unshaded area without breaking into drenching perspiration, let alone wander around a plaza, singing a contemporary score. It would be punishing enough just to stand there and listen. I knew that the performers would show up. But would anyone else?
How could I have doubted the curiosity of music-loving New Yorkers? Some 2,000 intrepid people turned out for this free performance, where audience members were invited to mingle among groups of singers in the plaza, heat be damned, for the duration of this 40-minute piece. And I was wrong to assume that Mr. Lang’s work would be in any way gimmicky. The premiere of “the public domain,” presented in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Mostly Mozart Festival, stands out for me as the most inspiring feel-good performance of 2016.
In essential ways, all choral music is an exercise in coming together: The art form involves individual singers holding their parts in a multilayered musical texture to create a greater whole. Philosophically and musically, that principle was at the core of “the public domain.”
Mr. Lang, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2008 for an intimate, tenderly tragic choral work, “The Little Match Girl Passion,” had already written something for a thousand voices, “Crowd Out,” though that piece was motivated by a very different kind of public gathering: a soccer match in London that Mr. Lang had attended. He was amazed by the rowdy wildness and shouting of the soccer fans, which created an “incredible kind of noise,” as he explained in an interview. To capture that frenzy in music, Mr. Lang wrote “Crowd Out” for “a thousand people yelling.”
“The public domain,” he said, explored the flip side: What people gain by more harmonious collective experiences. For text, Mr. Lang typed unfinished sentences into internet search engines: “One thing we all share is …” and “One thing we all have is our…”
Answers came back as varied as “love of music,” “our pain” and “our free will and power to choose.” After discarding the off-color results, Mr. Lang selected phrases and assembled the lyrics. He knew he would be writing for a combination of professional choristers, as well as many eager but untrained singers, including some who could not read music. So the score had repetitive elements that could be learned and performed easily, but with just enough inventiveness, even strangeness, to be musically interesting and emotionally powerful.
To simplify things, singers were grouped into five strands of some 200 members. The overall performance was directed by Simon Halsey, who led the chorus in the Berlin Philharmonic’s wrenching staged account of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” at the Park Avenue Armory in 2014.
By the time of this premiere, in the midst of an acrimonious presidential race, a piece that depended upon crowds of people gathering peacefully in an outdoor public space felt especially salutary. Is it any wonder that some 3,000 New Yorkers embraced a chance to experience music together, despite the steamy weather than day?
The choristers walked out, strand by strand, to take their places in the plaza. Movements and arm gestures for the singers were devised by the choreographer Annie-B Parson. “The public domain” began ritualistically, with murmuring, some vocal drones and intoned intervals. At first, various voices spoke certain phrases, like “our struggle to figure out our lives.”
Slowly and steadily, the piece became more lyrical, with sung melodic fragments that charmingly juxtaposed lines like “our love of music” with “our favorite sandwich.” One intense section was driven by bursts of chords that built in density and volume. Another was a near riot of sputtered phrases that culminated in a stretch of frenetic clapping. The final section was dominated by long sustained chords that would crescendo and then subside into almost inaudible calm. At the very end, the singers spoke words from the text softly until silence reigned.
At the end, the singers, along with the many listeners who, in a meaningful if silent way, had also taken part, all cheered. Everyone in the plaza that day must have felt as wilted and sticky as I did. No matter. The jubilation was genuine, especially when the beaming Mr. Lang appeared on the balcony to take a bow and thank the participants.
I was especially moved to see that quite a few singers performing that day had taken their children. Here were parents passing on the rich heritage of choral singing. I’m all for starting grade-schoolers who are interested in music on some instrument. Still, piano lessons can give children a false first impression: that music is something you mostly practice at home by yourself. It’s more valuable to be introduced to music by joining the school chorus, where children learn that music can be a joyous, collective endeavor, with all the voices dependent on one another. If you have this experience early enough, it tends to take hold for life.
This event was an affirming celebration of that tradition, as well as a profound statement of our larger communality. Now that a new administration will take charge of a country that remains bitterly divided, we could use another performance of “the public domain.”
I bet it would draw an even bigger audience, even in the chill of winter.
What our critics can’t forget from this year.