Reliving the Emotions
Picking up the Pieces: Houston's first responders moved by Houston Grand Opera's9/11 song cycle
On any other day, the rehearsal room on the sixth floor of the Wortham Theater Center is physically devoid of anything inspiring. White painted concrete walls, worn, scratched floors and high ceilings act as the mere holding space — a creative hub, per se — from which many brilliant artistic ideas are born.
Such was the case Thursday night, when musicians, singers and listeners convened to experience the first run through of Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston. Commissioned by Houston Grand Opera's community engagement department, HGOco, the seven-part song cycle written by Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers, Moby Dick) and librettist Gene Scheer (Three Decembers, Moby Dick) fused stories from those who were affected by, or responded to, the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Among those in the audience were Texas Task Force One First Responders Ken Wright, Bear Wilson, Eddie Mathison and Chief "Big Joe" Clark III. A decade ago, they had traveled to the Big Apple with the expectation to cooperate in a rescue mission that quickly became a recovery mission, where hopes of finding survivors turned into unearthing dismembered body parts. Their experience was documented by Scheer in a process that involved more than 30 hours of interviews, which also included past and present Houston leaders, families, teachers, students and community members.
Though stoic in presence, the men were deeply affected as they relived their own stories and thoughts— translated into original lyrics — set to beautiful, rich, flowing music.
"I am a theater composer so I respond to words and the emotional situation behind those words, why they exist," Heggie told CultureMap. "My job as a composer — as a theater composer — is to respond to that on an emotional plane so that the words, which are moving in and of themselves, take a new life because of lyricism and harmony."
Though stoic in presence, the men were deeply affected as they relived their own stories and thoughts— translated into original lyrics.
Scored for chamber ensemble, the pieces call for a colorful orchestration of flute, violin, cello, guitar and a cast composed of a baritone, soprano and two girl sopranos. Quoting Bach's Cello Suite in G Major, Heggie employed the familiar arpeggiated thematic material to craft the harmonic language of the work. Accessible and epically tuneful at times, the sonorities morphed from theatrical to pastoral, from angst and uneasiness to uplifting and joyful.
"It's a piece (Bach's Suite) that's performed at weddings, funerals, celebrations and memorials," Heggie explained. "It has a great sense of all encompassing humanity. And ultimately, it's a very uplifting piece. People hear the heartache in it and they feel the moving power of its melody. That's why I used it as a musical anchor."
It's contemporary, yet familiar, and powerfully demonstrative as evident in the response from those present, this reporter included.
Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston premiered Friday afternoon at the City Hall Reflection Pond. It was also performed Friday night as part of "Houston Remembers 9/11: An Evening of Remembrance and Unity" at Discovery Green. Two additional performances are scheduled at Rothko Chapel for Sunday at 2 and 4 p.m.
After the run through, CultureMap had the chance to speak with the first responders, the composer and librettist. In these two videos, they share their thoughts.