NEWTOWN— “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
These were the words of composer Leonard Bernstein, delivered in a speech on November 25, 1963—three days after President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. His words are powerful among any community stricken by tragedy, and recognize the healing power of music.
This certainly rings true for Philip Kates, a violinist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has played his violin in the aftermath of devastating events before—notably traveling to Sichuan following a deadly earthquake in 2008. And as the 10th anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting drew nearer, Kates began thinking about how he could use his musical gift to bring healing and hope to the Newtown community.
Kates reached out to Monsignor Robert Weiss—pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Newtown—in the weeks following the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Many drew comparisons between the two tragedies, including Kates.
“With the fresh pain of Uvalde, I began thinking … about Sandy Hook,” he said. “Knowing this 10th anniversary was approaching for the Newtown community, I soon came to realize I was feeling a personal need to offer some gesture of comfort and support there.”
Kates collaborated with St. Rose music minister Joe Jacovino to develop a program for a concert commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting. He originally planned for the program to consist solely of string quartet music, with the exception of the closing piece—Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus”—in which the quartet would accompany the St. Rose choir.
However, as time went on, Kates decided to ask each member of the quartet to contribute a short solo piece to the program. Jacovino offered the choir could sing “I’ll Walk With God,” which would begin the concert. Both choices could open up the program to an audience that might not be as familiar with classical music concerts.
“I thought that some variation in the type of music and the instrumentation would alleviate a possible monotony, which might be felt by someone new to listening to classical music,” he said.
Kates himself is particularly drawn to the choral piece “Ave Verum Corpus,” and was never quite the same after he heard it for the first time.
“It would not be an exaggeration to say it changed my life,” he said. “I think, in musical form, it’s the purest expression of love and devotion I’ve heard to this day. If this memorial’s program page were a blank canvas, even though the Ave Verum Corpus would be its final brush strokes, this treasure is the only music which I knew absolutely must be on it.”
Choosing the rest of the program’s music, according to Kates, was a process that was difficult and simple at the same time—difficult because of the wealth of music available for string quartets to perform, yet simple because of time, place and the generosity of spirit from the musicians who will perform it.
“The primary thought was that there should be as little strife in the music as possible without the music being bland,” he said. “The music had to be beautiful, and pleasant to listen to, and not be imposing.”
While Kates is eager to share the beauty of the music included in the concert’s program with the Newtown community, he ultimately sees his and the other performers’ role as one of service.
“The main thing we want to offer is solace to a grieving community,” he said. “And our presence there is in the service of doing this.”
The Sandy Hook Memorial Concert is set for Monday, December 12 at 7:30 pm at St. Rose of Lima Parish: 46 Church Hill Road, Newtown, CT. Performers will include the St. Rose choir, choir director Joseph Jacovino and the following string quartet members:
Philip Kates (violinist) is a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he joined in November 1980. He is also a founding member of Liebesfreud and a frequent performer of chamber music. He is active in community service, having performed as solo violinist at Philadelphia’s annual Holocaust Memorial Observance Ceremony since 1990, and for Philadelphia-area nursing homes, hospices and soup kitchens since 1997. For his dedication to enriching the lives of children with music, he was honored in 2008 by a very generous gift from Hilarie and Mitchell Morgan endowing his chair in the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has also composed dozens of works for voice, violin and various chamber groupings. One of those pieces, “Amidah,” will be his solo piece at the Sandy Hook Memorial Concert.
Dr. Solomiya Ivakhiv (violinist) hails from Ukraine, and is an associate professor of violin and viola at the University of Connecticut and is a professor of violin at the Longy School of Music at Bard College. She has led master classes and coached chamber music at other universities, including Yale and Columbia, and regularly collaborates with high schools in outreach programs across America. She is the 2022 recipient of the Merited Artist of Ukraine award, the highest honor awarded to artists in her home country. Her solo piece at the Sandy Hook Memorial Concert will be “Lullaby” by Ukrainian composer Valentyn Silvestrov.
Ashleigh Gordon (violist) is the co-founder, violist and artistic and executive director of Castle of Our Skins, a Boston-based concert and educational series devoted to celebrating Black artistry through music. An advocate of social change through education, she was a viola instructor in the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Intensive Community Program, a rigorous string instrumental program that provides instruction to populations often underrepresented in classical music. Having championed the work of African-American composer Florence Price in her work, Gordon’s solo piece will be Price’s “Night.”
Rebecca Patterson (cellist) is the principal cellist for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. She has been a leader in developing the orchestra’s Harmony Fellowship, a post-graduate training program for professional musicians from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. She was one of only five orchestra musicians in America to receive the 2019 Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service from the League of American Orchestras. Prior to her position in the NHSO, Rebecca was a founding member of the award-winning quartet, Antares (1996-2012). The ensemble received national acclaim after garnering top prizes in several national competitions, including the Fischoff, Coleman, Yellow Springs, and Concert Artists Guild competitions. Her solo piece will be the “Largo” from Frederic Chopin’s Sonata for cello and piano.
By Rose Brennan