This Friday, the second “Prayer for Peace” concert series will conclude at NJPAC in Newark. “Prayer for Peace: The Power of One Voice” will be the New Jersey premiere of the series – the last cycle’s final performance took place at Carnegie Hall in 2015.
We recently spoke with conductor and MidAtlantic Opera‘s Artistic Director Jason Tramm about partnering with Seton Hall University to create a musical event designed to show audiences how art can be a force for positive change in even the most turbulent times.
Culture Vultures: I wanted to start by asking you about this quote from composer Leonard Bernstein: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” This quote was a big inspiration for you while putting this concert program together.
Jason Tramm: Yes, Leonard Bernstein was such an engaged artist. Of course, he was one of the most brilliant musicians of all time, but he was also very involved in social, political and humanist causes, too. And that’s always been an inspiration to me. That quote kind of became our mantra for this concert series. Music has this power to bring people together – to unite and inspire – and that’s our goal. To present music that will do that for people.
CV: Could you unpack that a little? How does music do that? How is it an instrument of peace?
JT: I’ve done a lot of conducting in a lot of different places, and I’ll give you an example. I was in Albania doing the premiere of “Porgy & Bess” at the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet – and I knew very little about Albania. I don’t speak Albanian. They didn’t speak English. We had to use translators and broken Italian. But I was amazed – the moment I put the stick down, all the divisions didn’t matter. We had a unified purpose. By the end of that experience, I had made a lot of new friends that I still have today.
I think that music has a diplomatic dimension to it. For this concert at NJPAC, we have 165 musicians on stage – people from everywhere – and we all come together to perform this powerful music. And that creates a bond between us. And I think the audience feels that, too.
CV: And what about the music itself?
JT: I’m always looking for music that has that spirit. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is an easy fit. He created music that, centuries later, still connects with people, still moves people at a deep level.
CV: How did you identify the right pieces for this concert series? What were you looking for?
JT: I’m so excited to talk about this because I really love to put programs together, and for this concert series I sought out pieces that complement each other in interesting ways. So, the Beethoven piece, being a classical music warhorse, one of the greatest artistic statements ever made, was an obvious choice. But I paired this work with Arnold Schoenberg’s chromatically dense, dissonant piece “A Survivor from Warsaw” – a different kind of work that is a tribute to all the victims of the Holocaust. The Beethoven piece is a beautiful statement that survives and shines throughout the darkest chapters in human history. It keeps seeking peace, and humanity. And with Schoenberg, we’re honoring a good friend of mine, Luna Kaufman, a survivor of the concentration camps, and a great educator, activist and champion of the arts.
CV: This series is also raising money for a scholarship fund for refugees. Could you talk about how that works?
JT: It’s a huge issue of our time, and we wanted, with this series, to do something concrete to help refugees. In the first series, we focused on the crisis in Syria, and gave the money we raised to the United Nations. We were looking for the right way to honor and help people. Our partnership with Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations and the College of Communication and the Arts led to the refugee scholarship, and it’s such a wonderful way to change lives. The fund will help refugees pursue degrees at Seton Hall.
CV: Throughout history, so many accomplished artists have been refugees or immigrants.
JT: Right, and Schoenberg is an example of that. The Nazis labeled his work “degenerate art,” and he fled Germany while they were rising to power. He saw the writing on the wall and came to the Unites States. And the Unites States benefited greatly as a result. Immigrants and refugees have always enriched our country, in the arts and every other field as well.
CV: This is the second cycle of your “Prayer for Peace” series. What’s different this time?
JT: The first series was a leap of faith, and Seton Hall University has been a wonderful partner to work with. We wanted to shed light on masterworks that embody this vision of optimism and peace we’ve been talking about – works that engage what is going on in our society. This time we wanted to show how one voice can change a society, Beethoven being that one voice who speaks over the generations, over the centuries. And the other pieces do that in different, complimentary ways. And, for the next “Prayer for Peace” concert series, we’re going to develop a new theme, a new program that will showcase music as an instrument for peace-making in a new way.
CV: So there’s more to come?
JT: Yes. For me, this series is a labor of love. I do a lot of conducting, but these concerts are very special to me. I’m pairing Beethoven with Schoenberg, [but also] a living composer from New York City with Israeli-born Moshe Knoll and Latvian-born Peteris Vask – a very varied repertoire with a central focus. This series really allows me to explore some really great music and put pieces together that normally would not be presented together. It’s thrilling to take the stage with so many great artists who believe, like I do, that music has the power to unite and inspire us all. In a world that is so full of turbulence and conflict, I believe it’s important to show people that art has that power, and that we have the ability to find our common humanity when we let ourselves look.
“Prayer for Peace: The Power of One Voice” will take place Friday, October 27 at 8 PM at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, 1 Center Street, Newark. For tickets, visit http://njpac.org.