We need beauty. We need it badly. On a day when we grappled with our grief over the enduring evil of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, on a day when we learned more from the media about the heinous attack on a young teacher, Colleen Ritzer of Danvers, Mass., on a day when we made our daily deal with the commonplace threats that we know are out there—on such a day more than 600 people gathered in Durgin Concert Hall at UMass Lowell to celebrate the good brought to us by a young president whose vibrant spirit burns like the eternal flame at his grave. The UMass Lowell Music Department’s University Orchestra, University Choir, Chamber Singers, and special guest narrator state Senator Eileen Donoghue of Lowell presented “Remembering JFK: 50 Years.” For the occasion, conductor Mark Latham loaded up the program with a Super Bowl of composers: Beethoven, Gershwin, Mozart, Martini, Brahms, and Copland.
We need water more than we need art, but art is basic to our humanity. At a minimum art can level off our angst for a while, and we all have a measure of dread because of our human term limit. At best, art raises us to orbits above our working rounds, giving us an experience of beauty, harmony, balance, grace, emotional release—even a brush with eternity in the form of the perfect, reached through superb composition and expression. All this was in play last night on stage and in the seats at Durgin Hall. I have been to many cultural events in Lowell in the past 40 years; last night’s concert was one of the most inspiring I have been fortunate enough to witness.
The evening’s program culminated in a dramatic performance of Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” with guest narrator Sen. Donoghue, whose reading of the profound text moved everyone in the hall. A slideshow of images prepared by Patty Coffey of UMass Lowell accompanied the music. The piece built toward the concluding words of the “Gettysburg Address”—“. . .That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Every selection was a highlight, leading to that powerful finish, from Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 1” and Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” to the astounding joined voices carrying Brahms’ “Ein deutches Requiem.”
Speaking at the dedication of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College in late October 1963, President Kennedy said, “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. . . .I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty.”