As acts of dissent go, it was a quiet one. During the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" last Sunday that the Curtis Institute of Music has long used to start its orchestra concerts, at least two listeners could be seen sitting.
A quiet act, yes, but it was jarring perhaps to some who sensed a transgressive moment of politics permeating the sanctum of the concert hall. Of course, starting a concert with "The Star-Spangled Banner" is in itself an incursion of politics into art.
It's not the only one, nor should it be.
We tend to think of art that has no overt social or political statement as a respite from a worrisome world — worry about racism, terrorism, social justice, inequality, equal rights and protection for women, incivility, and the apparent erosion of the rule of law.
A year into the Trump era, the sanity-saving response is quite reasonably, "Mozart, take me away."
The urge to reconnect to (seemingly) simpler times is no doubt the animating force behind buying a ticket to one of the many movie scores the Philadelphia Orchestra is playing these days. Not long ago in Verizon Hall, the silhouette of boy, bike, and extraterrestrial against a full moon and fuller orchestral score was nothing if not a trip back to the safety of a world as it once existed for many of us.
President Trump, though, is merely an avatar for our newer, scarier age of anxiety. Social media has been a shrill presence, and a distorting one. The good news is our Facebook news feeds have made it nearly impossible to ignore injustice. The bad news is injustice is inexhaustible, and we are not. So turning it off and looking for escape in the theater, gallery, library reading room, or concert hall has greater appeal than ever.
The best news of all, though, is that sitting in the presence of art is both escape and an act of confrontation with the barbarians, however you might define them.
One of the listeners in the conductors' circle for the Curtis orchestra concert told me that it was the first time he had sat for "The Star-Spangled Banner" and that it unexpectedly made him feel "very, very proud" to be a U.S. citizen.
"I love our country, and the physical representations of it — the American flag and the [anthem]," said David Othmer. "I also love that as a nation, for 241 years we have been trying to achieve something never achieved before – a functioning, diverse, large, caring, honest democracy. I feel that sitting is a way to remind us all that we're not there yet, and that our most important job is to keep working toward that goal."
The irony is that Curtis' arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by the school's late orchestral pedagogue Otto-Werner Mueller is an act of protest. It seems more so every time it is played. Pointedly anti-military, robed in golden orchestrations building from a mournful opening, this is a piece that knows what was and still is wrong in America, and loves it all the more. It was arranged by Mueller to be performed in the Midwest as a massive Vietnam peace march was going on in Washington in November 1969.
There is no shortage now of new music being brought into existence for political or social purpose. Caroline Shaw's To the Hands explores immigration and displacement, Ted Hearne's Consent considers how language influences thinking about women's rights, and David Lang's the national anthems suggests that "every national anthem is the recognition that we are insecure about our freedoms, that freedom is fragile, and delicate, and easy to lose," the composer writes. All three works are to be performed this month in Chestnut Hill by the Crossing choir and the International Contemporary Ensemble.
But there is great power to be had even in works ostensibly unconnected to politics.
Ours is a good time to be asking whether there is an American sound. I don't mean patriotic tunes, but rather works that express something about the character of our nation. Now we are on thin ice. Music as a vessel for the values of a nation? The Nazi propaganda machine thought so, too, when it repurposed Wagner's music.
But just because the concept has been misused doesn't mean we can't go looking for our best selves in music. Anyone can hear it in abundance in Barber's Violin Concerto, started in Europe as World War II was beginning, and completed at his family cottage at Pocono Lake Preserve. With its sun-dappled peace and amity, the first movement reassures. Its musical language speaks with great sincerity about the value of goodness. Hilary Hahn really gets something about the tone of the work in her recording with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and conductor Hugh Wolff.
If the experience of art seems like a retreat from daily reality — the Mahler song "I Am Lost to the World" from his Rückert-Lieder makes a good case — it is also a source of badly needed perspective in disorienting times. The sound of liberty triumphant in Beethoven's Fidelio, the humanity in so many of Strauss' songs and operas, the quiet beauty of domestic security in another great Barber work, Knoxville: Summer of 1915: To be in the company of these pieces is to be grounded, particularly in Knoxville when you hear Leontyne Price's epic strength in a recording with conductor Thomas Schippers. (Note to local groups: audiences would connect to this Barber score right about now.)
Knoxville, set to James Agee's breathtaking words, might be our most powerful touchstone of musical nationalism, a concept in music that means only material unique to a culture (think Dvorak, Sibelius, Elgar). Text and music have rarely formed a more perfect union than they do in this work. The song is told from a child's perspective as the small town settles into twilight. Locusts release their sounds, parents rock on porches, and the child lies on quilts spread in the backyard as Barber's orchestra evokes the sound of the stars coming out.
The last lines:
After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
One comes upon that last line as an unexpected ravine of endless interpretive possibilities. And yet that is exactly what Knoxville and works of its kind have done and continue to do. They tell us who we are. All we need to do is listen.