By 3:30 p.m.,  Duke Chapel was packed full for the 4:00 p.m. 9/11 Commemoration Concert. People occupied every available seat and stood along the walls and in the narthex, and many sat outside on the lawn in front of Duke Chapel, where an audio broadcast of the comments and concert was available; all in anticipation of the healing power of music, of Mozart’s magnificent Requiem. It was a powerful expression of a community’s need to sort out feelings still raw in many cases from images, memories, changed lives and uncertainty still fresh from that unforgettable day ten years ago.

At 10 a.m. on September 12, 2001, musician Karl Paulnack sat down at the piano to practice as was his daily routine.  He hesitated as his mind flooded with the events of the previous day. “Does this even matter?” he thought. “Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.”  (

In the days following 9/11, Paulnack noted that people were singing around the firehouses, at monuments, and at other public gathering places. People were singing “We Shall Overcome” and “America, the Beautiful” and “Amazing Grace.” Within a few weeks people across the nation crowded to concert halls, cathedrals, and churches to hear Mozart’s Requiem or other great works. Within months, composers began to write some remarkable music to commemorate, to recall, and to help us all cope with the jumble of powerful emotions in every American about that fateful, awful day. In part, Paulnack’s conclusion came down to this, in his 2009 welcoming address to students at Boston Conservatory: “Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, ‘I am alive, and my life has meaning.’” (The entire address by Karl Paulnack is available at the website above.)

So in Duke Chapel, with the help of profound word by Richard Brodhead, President of Duke University, Bill Bell, Mayor of the City of Durham, Abdullah Antepli, Muslim Chaplain at Duke University, and Sam Wells, Dean of Duke Chapel, over 2,000 people pondered individually and as a community the meaning of death and of life on this tenth anniversary of 9/11.  With the aid of Duke Chapel Choir, Duke Chorale, Duke Vespers Ensemble, the Choral Society of Durham, and the Orchestra Pro Cantores, all under the direction of Rodney Wynkoop, the audience grieved losses, celebrated heroes, and rededicated themselves to a future where terror may be absent, where good is brought forth out of evil.

Wynkoop is at home in Duke Chapel and has always demonstrated an uncanny ability to shape any work of art to fit the occasion and to fit the unique acoustical qualities of the chapel while maintaining the absolute integrity of the music. This was by my count his 6th or 7th occasion of conducting the Requiem, a work familiar to most of the singers and instrumentalists as well. Yet no matter how many times it has been done before, this performance was unique.

For example, during the Dies Irae, I felt the chapel was full of smoke and debris, terror, and fear. When the last cadence finished, echoing throughout the chapel, it was as though we had not only heard a powerful musical expression of the day of wrath but that we had also experienced an event of very real terror. The choirs and orchestra seemed beyond themselves in this rendition. During the powerful Rex Tremendae and Sanctus sections of the mass, I felt this was America’s response to terrorism: strength, unity, and assurance. The impressive trombone solo that begins the Tuba mirum was matched by the bass soloist, John Kramar, professor of Music at East Carolina University School of Music. Here was the call of judgment; “no wrong shall remain unpunished.” the text says.

Another impressive moment was in the Introitus. The bewitching bassoon solo lead to the choral entrance and then, on the words “Te decet hymnus” (“A hymn befits thee, O God, in Zion, and to thee a vow shall be fulfilled in Jerusalem.”), the silvery voice of soprano Louise Toppin, Professor and Area Head of Voice at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, emerged and soared splendidly, though briefly. It was a magical moment.  In the closing movement, the Lux Aeterna, the soprano sang again for just four measures, on the words “May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, in the company of thy saints forever and ever.” Yes!

The double fugue of the Kyrie was precise and crisp; no mean accomplishment in the reverb of Duke Chapel, yet a hallmark of Wynkoop and the choirs he conducts. The Recordare was a wonderful rendition of the gentile prayer “Remember,  merciful Jesus,” by the quartet of soloists, including the velvety alto Mary Gayle Greene, of the voice faculty at the Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University, and the impressive tenor, Robert Bracey, Coordinator of Vocal Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The Confutatis called for protection, certainly a frequent and fervent prayer on 9/11 and every day since. The wonderful Lacrymosa allowed tears to flow for the guilty and to plead for God’s mercy even for them. Every section of the Requiem spoke to us as meaningfully and freshly as though it had been written especially for this day of remembrance, grieving, and recommitment. At this commemoration of the day Americans can never forget we remembered and moved closer to healing because of the power of words and music.