Music as truth to power
Second Opinion

Music as truth to power

/ 05:13 AM October 20, 2023

Cambridge, Massachusetts—Last week, I watched Yo-Yo Ma perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s two cello concertos with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). It was, as expected, a full house at the Symphony Hall, with the legendary cellist playing not just one but two masterpieces from one of the 20th century’s greatest composers.

I have always viewed classical music performances as meaningful occasions that link me to my childhood (I grew up to listening to my father’s CDs of Antonio Vivaldi and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), my college days (my friends introduced me to Ludwig van Beethoven and Sergei Rachmaninov), and the rest of the world (I have since tried to watch performances wherever I am). Despite its Western roots, classical music is now played, conducted, and composed by artists from diverse backgrounds, including my favorite pianists Mitsuko Uchida and Yunchan Lim; the week before the concert, I also attended BSO’s season opener that featured “Four Black American Dances” by the African-American composer Carlos Simon: a gesture to the evolving character of the genre. As the writer and impresario Pablo Tariman tells me, young Filipinos are thriving in this space, too, from the Davao-based cellist Damodar das Castillo to the Filipino-Finnish conductor Tarmo Peltokoski.

And yet at that particular moment, being in the hall seemed to be an embarrassment of privilege, with the opening piece—Joseph Haydn’s “Symphony No. 22,” a world apart from the war in the Holy Land. At Harvard Square, close to where I’m staying, a pick-up truck was doxxing the students who had written a letter of solidarity to the Palestinian movement; that same day, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that “hospitals risk turning into morgues” amid Israel’s order for the entire population of northern Gaza to evacuate.

It was Yo-Yo Ma himself who attempted to reconcile the rarefied world of classical music and the real world. Before playing “Cello Concerto No. 2” he spoke about the year of its composition—1966—as being at the height of the Cold War; he recounted how Shostakovich used his music to challenge Joseph Stalin and his idea that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” He then invited the audience to listen to the music in the same terms with which he committed to perform it: as a way of speaking truth to power.


He then launched into an emotional performance of the concerto. During the performance, some of the musicians were visibly in tears, as the cello’s music—at times screeching, at times mournful, never dying—became the personification of the human spirit amid the fearsome percussions that became, at least to me, as though the reverberations of gun and rocket fire. When the final strum of the cello lapsed into silence, the audience burst not so much with rapturous applause, but with a somber appreciation for such a profound performance.

The real world, however, soon encroaches on such transcendental thoughts. Grappling for words after the intermission, conductor Andris Nelsons called for a minute of silence for “victims of the violence in Israel,” prompting some to whisper: “What about Palestine?” Ironically, the next piece was by the Iranian composer Iman Habibi, entitled “Zhiân,” which, according to the program notes, translates to “life” in Kurdish and to “indignant” or “formidable” in Persian. I wonder how it would have changed the tenor of the moment, if the composer, in attendance, was allowed to speak (For my own views on this very complex issue, see “A moral response for Palestine,” 05/21/21).

For the finale, Yo-Yo Ma was back, this time, he did not speak at all, but his performance of “Cello Concerto No. 1”—including a spirited rendition of the second movement followed by the cadenza and a frenzied finale—rehearsed the transcendental vision with which he prefaced the earlier piece.

Leaving the concert hall, I struggled to make sense of what I just witnessed and of the place of music in our world today. I thought of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9,” memorably played by Leonard Bernstein after the fall of the Berlin Wall and how its lyrics—”Alle Menschen werden Brüder”—must have expressed people’s aspirations for world peace. I thought of Shostakovich’s “Symphony no. 13,” nicknamed “Babi Yar” and widely regarded as a denunciation of Russian anti-Semitism. And I thought of our Edsa People Power Revolution back in 1986—now at risk of erasure—and how songs like “Bayan Ko” gave voice to people’s democratic longings.


Yo-Yo Ma himself has been an outspoken pacifist, often reminding his audiences of the historical and political contexts of the pieces he was playing, even as he struggled to articulate how music can be an instrument for peace. “Maybe at some level,” he said earlier this year, “playing music is a way of engaging people in the common search of who we are, and who we want to be.”

Perhaps music truly has the ability, if not to speak truth to power, then to stir our emotions and give voice to feelings that cannot be captured by words, including a sense of humanity where our collective power may yet lie. But as I biked back to my residence hall, it was the timpani, not the cello, that kept ringing in my ears.



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TAGS: Music, opinion

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