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Wheeling Symphony Orchestra’s John Devlin: Music Matters in Uncertain Times

John Devlin

I vividly remember the feeling. First period, 8:20 a.m. Studio Art class. It’s a beautiful September day in 2001. There is no cell phone in every pocket,so the news trickles in rather than floods.

Something has happened.

An accident? Yeah. Where? The city. Is anyone hurt? Not sure. Doesn’t your dad work in the city? Yes. Then, Mrs. Dalsimer tells us: it’s time to go home.

***

Nineteen miles away from the World Trade Center, my hometown of Bronxville, New York, is a one-square-mile village, small enough for each student to walk home from school in a matter of minutes. That day, the walk doesn’t feel right. The air is darker than normal, the smell more molten. Once home, the television tells us that our world will never be the same.

And it hasn’t ever been the same.

But more vividly than the day of tragedy, I remember the moment when I felt hope again. Exactly three weeks later, on Sept. 22, 2001, Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic concluded a performance of the Brahms Requiem. The crowd was silent. Maestro Masur had asked for there to be no applause — a tribute to the heroic front-line workers and the innocent civilians who had perished in the most devastating foreign attack in history on U.S. soil. The power of music lifted our hanging heads, fed our diminished spirits,and helped us to heal.

Our current foe is not one that wishes us harm, but it is certainly delivering to us a world-wide health crisis the likes of which we have not seen for a century. The people who have been stricken with COVID-19 need our wishes for healing most of all. The heroes on our front lines once again are risking their lives for those in peril. We thank those heroes. They are essential.

The Wheeling Symphony Orchestra is rightly classified as non-essential. But I believe that is about to change.

***

When you emerge from your homes, when you feel safe again, we will be there for you. We will perform at Oglebay for Music Under the Stars, in the Capitol Theatre for our subscription series, at WesBanco for Symphony on Ice, and in our schools for our Young People’s Concerts. That will feel normal. It will feel good. And, I want our community to know that for our first concert back as a full orchestra, we have prepared a carefully constructed artistic experience that responds to the time we will have spent in isolation, mourns our world’s losses, and provides hope for the future.

We eagerly await the time when it will be safe to return in those familiar ways.

***

In New York, fearlessness has always been a value. In 2001, we stood up to the threat by returning right away to our concert halls and to our beloved Yankee Stadium, to our jobs and to our communities. We were determined to display our pride.

Now, a rush to return would endanger those we love. So–the WSO is about to adapt in order to help our community connect, console, and heal. This month, May 2020, marks the 90th-anniversary celebration of our great orchestra. And, for the first time in 90 years, we are going to need to adjust fully to new reality and do something that we have never done before: present a virtual concert. A virtual celebration.

Our musicians will deliver a variety of performances, featuring works by the composers whose music would have been heard in the Capitol this month. Two of our community’s outstanding, prize-winning young musicians will also share their talents. You’ll hear from community leaders about the impact that the orchestra has had on our city over the last nine decades and enjoy a visit from former members of the WSO family. Maxim Lando, the outstanding young pianist who was to have been our soloist,is going to join us with a performance and offer a message of hope — and I’m even going to make a guest appearance as a clarinetist. We are also partnering with local businesses to engage in the celebration, and we’re designing ways in which we can support them in conjunction with this concert.

Ninety years means your orchestra has made it through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Great Recession, and yes, 9/11. We will also make it through COVID-19. Please join us online on May 28th at 8 p.m. as we unite Wheeling through music. Never before have I felt surer of the words that we have chosen to be ours: The Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, “Your Community, in Concert.”

John Devlin is music director of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra

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