Music defying violence: Concert for Orlando victims at First Presbyterian right gesture, right time

ORLANDO221
Andrew Senn (standing at right), Director of music at First Presbyterian Church, 21st and Walnut Streets, conducts A Concert to End Gun Violence, in memory of those who lost their lives in the Orlando terror attack, at the church on June 19, 2016. Musicians from The First Presbyterian Church, Opera Philadelphia, the Academy of Vocal Arts, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia performed. Photo: Clem Murray / Staff Photographer

Art may or may not be the answer to society's most nettlesome ills. But sometimes in the face of abject destruction, the only thing you can do is to draw yourself up to the beauty of creation as closely as you possibly can, and listen.

Sunday afternoon's musical response to the Orlando massacre could have achieved quite a lot with any number of pieces of music, but the repertoire choices were particularly wise. About 300 packed the pews of First Presbyterian Church at 21st and Walnut Streets for the concert by conductor Andrew Senn, a chamber orchestra of mostly freelancers, and a chorus of about three dozen (all donating their time and talent).

It was exactly the right gesture at exactly the right moment.

A group from this church founded MANNA in 1990 at the bewildering depths of the AIDS crisis, and it was heartening to see another generation pulling together such a powerfully resonant and dignified answer, this time to violence. A free-will offering yielded more than $3,500 in donations to be split between the William Way LGBT Community Center and the faith-based anti-gun-violence group Heeding God's Call.

Speeches were minimal, and there was no applause the entire hour.

The pieces were arranged in an emotional arc, and effectively so, though in the context of the occasion the Mozart that opened was a complete experience in itself. The text of Ave verum corpus is about the transformative power of suffering, but Mozart's setting, with its gorgeously unexpected harmonic change toward the middle, suggested to the nonreligious listener a more universal message that perhaps these deaths would not go without prompting real change.

Brahms' A German Requiem, a piece with an every-person touch meant to cradle the survivors, was represented by "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place," which seemed to hold the audience within protective walls of sound generated by both rumbling organ, played by Kevin O'Malia, and chorus.

Barber's Adagio for Strings is compulsory listening at moments like this, perhaps, but its pairing at the center of the program with the "Nimrod" movement from Elgar's Enigma Variations formed a shadowy veil, followed by five more light-filled movements from the Fauré Requiem, with a particularly searching solo by baritone Brian Ming Chu in the "Libera me."

After the music, 50 silvery organ chimes were struck, one for each life lost in Orlando on June 12. In the still moments that followed, a few wiped their tears, and, in silence, listeners filed out into a different reality.

pdobrin@phillynews.com

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