The Cleveland Orchestra played the local first performance of John Adams’ 9/11 memorial On the Transmigration of Souls on Thursday, with guest conductor Jakub Hrůša. The stroke of programming genius was to pair the somber Adams work with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 4, with its transcending view of earthly life, heaven and dancing with angels.

Jakub Hrůša and The Cleveland Orchestra and Choirs
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Adams' work was first performed in 2002, just over a year after the 2001 terrorist attacks that destroyed the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center (as well as killing many employees at the Pentagon in Washington, DC and crashing a commercial jetliner in rural Pennsylvania.) Transmigration is mammoth in its goals and musical requirements – chorus, children’s chorus, huge orchestra with an enormous percussion battery, as well as a recorded soundtrack that surrounds the audience. The text consists of phrases from missing-person posters and memorials posted in the vicinity of the ruins of the World Trade Center. The chorus often sings wordless vowel sounds in intricate harmony, merging with the orchestral texture. The work begins with recorded sounds of everyday street noises, then introduces sirens, plus other real life sounds before the orchestra enters.

After the quiet opening, Adams immediately starts a gradual, but incessant crescendo to a colossal and violent climax before fading away at the end of its 25 minutes. Despite the sometimes thick-textured, dissonant music, much of it is beautifully tonal, among Adams’ most alluring music. There are many moments that might be pictorial, including glittering tuned percussion, perhaps representing the bright, cloudless September day, or perhaps the millions of glass shards that fell from the towers, or perhaps the transition of the victims from one plane of being to another.

The performance was peerless, with Hrůša building the textures and tension and The Cleveland Orchestra playing with utmost virtuosity this technically and emotionally difficult music. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and a subset of the orchestra’s children and youth choruses were brilliant, with impeccable blend and intonation. At the end, Hrůša held the audience in silence for at least thirty seconds before applause began. I noticed many damp eyes and that, during the ensuing intermission, a larger percentage than usual of the audience remained seated.

Joélle Harvey, Jakub Hrůša and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Following the Adams work with anything was a daunting challenge, but this performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was robust, romantic and direct. There were many winning details, although there were a few moments of sketchy intonation along the way in the winds. Solo opportunities abound, but the work of principal horn Nathaniel Silberschlag deserves special note, as does concertmaster Peter Otto’s playing of the retuned violin sounding like a country fiddle in the second movement. The technicolor fortissimo modulation out of nowhere in the third movement made its intended startling effect. American soprano Joélle Harvey was radiant in the last movement’s setting of text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the collection of poetry that inspired so many Mahler works. There were several moments in which Harvey was covered by the orchestra, but the gentle ending made up for it. Truly, in program book editor Eric Sellen’s translation of the German text, “the angelic voices gently stir our minds so that everyone awakens refreshed”.