Two days after President Kennedy died in Dallas in November 1963, conductor Leonard Bernstein memorialized him in a nationally televised concert with the New York Philharmonic. They performed Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony. The next night, speaking for artists everywhere, Bernstein addressed the annual fundraising event of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York at Madison Square Garden.

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime,” Bernstein said. “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

Maine composer Aaron Robinson was reminded of Bernstein’s words while listening to media reports in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris in the fall of 2015 that killed 130 people and injured 400 more. “One of the people interviewed was quoted as saying, ‘We’ve become numb with sorrow,’ ” Robinson said. “When I heard ‘numb with sorrow,’ I was already creating in my head.”

Robinson, who lives in Alna, wrote a choral anthem for a cappella choir, using only Bernstein’s words from his Kennedy address. He calls the piece “This Will Be Our Reply to Violence,” and wrote it in response to the violence in Paris and the seemingly ceaseless violence since.

“It’s almost something we’ve become accustomed to,” he said. “We’ve become numb to it.”

He took one sentence from Bernstein – “And this will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before” – and set it to music, repeating it over and over, a determination to stand strong with intention.

“This Will Be Our Reply to Violence” will premiere May 4 and 5 at Studzinski Recital Hall on the Bowdoin College campus, in a concert by the Bowdoin Chorus and Orchestra under the direction of Anthony Antolini, a longtime mentor to Robinson. In June, Vox Nova Chamber Choir will perform the piece as well, in Portland and Topsham, as part of its 2017 Peace Concerts Series.

Leonard Bernstein leads a rehearsal in 1990. The New York Philharmonic conductor’s words inspired Robinson’s “This Will Be Our Reply to Violence.” Photo by Associated Press/WNET/HO

Robinson arranged it without orchestration to emphasize Bernstein’s words and to celebrate the power of the human voice – or more accurately, many voices coming together as one. “When people have come together for centuries and done so in praise and remembrance, they’ve always raised their voice in song. When there is sorrow, there is song.”

The students at Bowdoin are in love with this piece, because it speaks succinctly about their feelings toward these times, said Mariette Aborn, a Bowdoin Chorus member. They’re concerned about the future of the world, and uncertain about their response. The one thing they can do is speak out, and this song gives them a voice, she said.

“Creative and artistic expression is a great way to respond,” said Aborn, a senior from Vermont. “It’s what we can do in the face of all the challenges of our society at the moment. It feels like something concrete to do when you are not always sure what to do.”

Another Bowdoin student, Simon Close, said Robinson employs Bernstein’s quote superbly, with its intensity found as much in its a cappella verses as in the silences between them. The simple repetition of the short phrase “gives me a sensation akin to spiritual devotion,” Close said.

“What I like most about Robinson’s piece, and what makes it worth singing for me, is a fourth quality not obviously reflected in Bernstein’s quote – its bold fragility. With the song’s close harmonies unsupported by instrumentation, it is delicate. Yet its delicacy is presented unashamedly and carries a sort of quiet hopefulness,” he said. “In my mind, that delicacy comes in stark contrast to a lot of the rhetoric and replies to violence promoted by many in the U.S. and around the world.”

The Bowdoin concert will include another Robinson piece, “For Those Who Have Not Died in Vain: A Requiem for a New World.” Robinson wrote it in 1993 while working at Bowdoin under Antolini as accompanist for the Bowdoin Chorus. He finished it 1997 and dedicated it to Antolini. At the time, he called it “An American Requiem” and wrote it to highlight the country’s accomplishments in the 20th century.

Bernstein in 1965. “He’s still a musical father figure,” said Maine composer Aaron Robinson. “He was my first teacher in a sense.” Photo by Associated Press

The human voice – spoken, not sung – is again the heartbeat of the work, which speaks to heroic sacrifice and patriotic honor with recorded excerpts from historic speeches and memorials. Robinson’s “Requiem” uses idioms, motifs and themes inspired by all-American music, and incorporates speeches by politicians, orators, writers and thinkers, during triumphant and tragic moments in history.

Robinson includes the voices and words of Martin Luther King (“Free at last”), John F. Kennedy (“Ask not what your country can do for you”) and Abraham Lincoln, whose Gettysburg Address is narrated by Carl Sandberg.

The most poignant is Chief Joseph’s speech at the Bear Paw Battlefield, read by John Dirks, over a solo by a boy soprano. Written years before Standing Rock and other contemporary native conflicts, it feels especially relevant.

When others perform the piece, Robinson allows them to choose their own speeches “as long as they reference a historically significant moment in U.S. history that memorializes or honors an individual who has given his or her life, or whose life was taken from them, in service to our country,” he said.

Robinson, 46, grew up on the midcoast, graduating from Medomak Valley High School in 1989. He was music director at Good Theater in Portland during the theater’s early years and also served as music director at Immanuel Baptist Church in Portland. While there, he created “Black Nativity – In Concert: A Gospel Celebration,” which recreated Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity.” He worked on Broadway, released several CDs and earned a regional Emmy Award nomination.

He’s made his life in music and has supported himself and his family composing music most of the last decade, after he stopped performing because of stage-related anxieties.

Getting a writing credit with a composer of Bernstein’s stature feels like a career-defining accomplishment, he said. Bernstein, one of the first American-born conductors to attain superstar status, was a hero to Robinson, as he was to many young composers. Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic for years and is best known for writing the music to “West Side Story.”

Robinson was 15 when he watched a Bernstein documentary on public TV. His course in life was set.

“He’s still a musical father figure. He was my first teacher in a sense. I emulated him the first time I stood at the podium,” Robinson said. “He influenced me in every possible way.”

Robinson received the blessing of the Leonard Bernstein Office in New York, which licenses Bernstein’s work. It granted Robinson performance rights and a one-time recording option.

The four pieces on the Bowdoin program complement each other through prayer, reflection and hope. Antolini paired Robinson’s pieces with “Different Ways to Pray” by Mohammed Fairouz, an Arab-American composer from New York, and a piece by the Bowdoin-based composer Vineet Shende that’s loosely based on “The Star-Spangled Banner” and includes other pieces of music that represent inclusiveness and diversity. Shende chairs the college’s music department.

Antolini calls the event “a concert of our times.”

“It is such a perfect time for this, with this endless cycle of violence all over the world,” he said. “What we ended up having was three young American composers writing music that was never intended to go together, but it all spoke together as a kind of response to that violence, and a musical presentation that emphasizes togetherness in this country.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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