Almost 100 musicians (both instrumentalists and singers) lined up to play in the orchestra and choir, conducted by Johannes Somary, for the Prayers for America Service at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 23. The contractors, both 802 members, were Oliver Gras, trumpeter, and concertmaster Susan Heerema.
“Many of us have been playing a lot since the tragedy at the World Trade Center,” Heerema told Allegro. “I even received calls from musicians I hadn’t yet contacted, who wanted to volunteer their time to be a part of this mark in history. What better time is there to make music? It is crucial at a time like this – to relax, uplift and contemplate with one’s soul.
“People have told me that I perform with deep feeling,” Heerema said, “but this was one of the most intense and reflective experiences I have had in some time. I’ve seen a change in human behavior since the disaster; people are treating each other with respect and care, a togetherness that will bring on healing.”
Cellist Christine Gummere has been arranging for musicians to perform at St. Paul’s Church on Fulton Street, which has been given over as a quiet space for rescue workers. “It’s not a concert,” Gummere said. “I call it spiritual background music. When you go down there, it’s actually very simple, and there are a lot of things going on. Sometimes there’s hardly anybody there, and sometimes there are a lot. But I think the basic feedback is that it’s a very positive thing for the firemen, diggers and police at the scene. It’s not continuous: there are three hour-long spots a day, with just one or two players. It’s meditative music, slow movements. The idea is just to make music.
“On a spiritual plane, I think it’s important that music is being made down there. It’s awful energy down there – so it’s important to do something that counteracts that, on some level. Music is our best invention, and it’s important that it be put out there.”
Another reason that it’s important, she notes, “is that people want to help, and that’s a part of their healing. Musicians have been calling up desperate because they’ve been trying to volunteer to play, and it’s hard to find a place to do that.
“We mainly need strings – not bass, but cello, violin and viola – and flute, bassoon, piano, lute and acoustic guitar. I think oboe and clarinet would be too loud; it needs to be gentle. We’re looking for people who know how to play soothing background music, and it doesn’t really matter in what style. You can play solo lines without the keyboard part, and some people have been improvising.
As this article was written, Gummere was preparing to hand over coordination of the project to Ralph Farris, an 802 member who has been looking for ways to play for rescue workers and families of the victims since the day after the disaster.
A contact with social worker Beth Kelly, who works at St. Vincent’s Hospital, led to a last-minute request for his quartet, Ethel, to play at a noon mass there soon after the tragedy. Since two members of the group were unavailable he called 802 and the union arranged for violinist Avril Brown and cellist Amy Ralske to join him and Todd Reynolds.
“The room was packed,” Farris said. “We played an Ave Maria and other music for a mass. It was exactly what was needed at the time, and we felt so good to be able to be there.” He and a number of other musicians were able to play in the hospital cafeteria for a week or so, for health care workers.
He was also part of the orchestra that played at Yankee Stadium, which he describes as “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced – and the most powerful musical experience. The overwhelming message was one of hope and strength and determination and unity – and patriotism to the hilt.”
Reflecting on the playing that he and so many other musicians have been doing recently, he said, “I’ve always felt that my most important and worthwhile contribution as a musician was when I was able to perform for people in times of crisis. Those have been the times when I’ve felt most useful.
“Every single musician that I’ve spoken to wants to just get out and play,” Farris said. “They don’t care about money; they care about healing the city.”
He plans to keep looking for ways to keep these efforts going – and he would like to hear from other members who can help locate places to play, and work on benefits and memorials. It’s best to contact him via email at email@example.com, or you can call him at (718) 392-4723.