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UMS Pres Matthew VanBesien Says Arts & Cultural Lessons Are Still Being Learned 20 Years After 9/11

Deb Polich
Creative Washtenaw

With the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaching, there is still much reflection on the impact of what happened, and it is still a solemn occasion for many. The arts played a powerful role in engaging in and healing from the tragedy, but what impact might that still be having now...20 years later?

WEMU's Lisa Barry talks with the president of the University of Michigan University Musical Society, Matthew VanBesien, about the ongoing arts and cultural impact of 9/11, both nationally and on the local community.


Lisa Barry: [00:00:00] Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States--still a day of great reflection and a solemn occasion for many. I'm Lisa Barry, and here we are 20 years later, still talking about the impact of the terrorist attacks, including the cultural impacts on the arts. We're joined now by the president of the University of Michigan University Musical Society, Matthew VanBesien to talk about that. Hi, Matthew, thanks for talking to us.

Credit Peter Smith
UMS President Matthew VanBesien

Matthew VanBesien: [00:00:26] Hi, Lisa. How are you?

Lisa Barry: [00:00:27] We know you have roots. You spent time in New York with the New York Philharmonic. But I understand you were not actually there when this happened 20 years ago, correct?

Matthew VanBesien: [00:00:36] Right. I was actually in New York from 2012 until 2017. But, you know, not only was it a great privilege to work and live in New York, but it was an incredible way to have an insight in some way into what people experienced in New York during 9/11 and following in the years following 9/11. I was not in New York. I was actually in Phoenix, Arizona. It was really right at the beginning of my administrative and management career. I was an orchestra management fellow working for four different organizations over the course of the year. And I was in Phoenix, Arizona, and I remember it vividly. I was up super early, Mountain Time, ironing a shirt, as a young administrator will do. And I remember watching the coverage on the news and especially when the second plane hit. And it really, if I think about it now, I think it was a real obviously this landmark terrible, tragic moment. And yet, I think it started a timeline and a through line for the arts in terms of the way the arts think about broader society and their role within it.

Lisa Barry: [00:01:49] For many of us, the arts are fulfilling. They soothe us and distract us and bring us peace. So, was there a response along those lines in the arts world to the 9/11 attacks?

Matthew VanBesien: [00:02:03] Well, I think every arts organization approached 9/11 in different ways, and that depended, of course, a lot on where you were and what the conditions were in that place. I am struggling to remember what how we actually responded in Phoenix, but I remember watching vividly the New York Philharmonic doing a televised concert about maybe eight or nine days after 9/11. Live on PBS, Beverly Sills gave the introduction.

Beverly Sills: [00:02:34] This is a time of extraordinary solemnity. Our city, our country is in a state of mourning. We are grieving for lives lost in an unspeakable, unimaginable tragedy.

Matthew VanBesien: [00:02:46] It was an incredibly moving day. They actually performed the Brahms German Requiem. And I'll talk a little bit in a few minutes about the choices of repertoire in those moments. But it was Kurt Masur, who was the music director. They did the Brahms German Requiem for an audience at Lincoln Center. That was their way in that moment of saying to New York and saying to the world, this is a time of healing. This is a time of great sadness and mourning, and yet, at the time that we come together to perform and offer our art form to other people.

Lisa Barry: [00:03:19] So, that's an immediate response to what was happening with the performance arts?

Matthew VanBesien: [00:03:23] But when you think about really the chaos in New York and having lived in New York and actually even lived through, you know, Hurricane Sandy, which, in no way, measures the tragedy of 9/11, the city really struggles in those moments logistically and kind of from an infrastructure standpoint. So, to think about in the eight-day or nine-day period, putting together a nationally televised concert was really pretty extraordinary. And for people to work through their own personal and collective grief to do that, I think was kind of an amazing thing.

Lisa Barry: [00:03:59] So, those were performances that happened shortly after the attacks. What about the creation of music? What was created or written or music or dance or any performance arts do? Is there been an impact of what came out of that as far as new performance arts being produced?

Matthew VanBesien: [00:04:17] Well, I think there's kind of two parts. There were certainly specific works that were very, very powerful that came out of 9/11, existing works that then took on new meaning after 9/11. I mean, one of the most important pieces of music that was commissioned actually was also involved with the New York Philharmonic, which was John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls, which then really became a part of the orchestral canon after that. But I actually think the bigger change, Lisa, is how the arts began to think of themselves. People in the arts begin to think of themselves differently following 9/11. And I'm talking about this very regularly this week, in particular with the anniversary of 9/11, but also because of the fact that we're coming out of the pandemic. You know, the arts, of course, had these sort of seminal moments,. I think about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the performances and the commissioning that Leonard Bernstein did. But the arts really post-9/11--and I think as you go through these 20 years and now in the pandemic--the arts are no longer--and they can't be--passive any longer. We really must be active participants in the here and now. We're not an elitist, sort of compartmentalized art form and part of society. We really have to be in the here and now. We have to be a part of the social fabric of our communities. So, I think, after 9/11, I think after the Great Recession, and certainly during the pandemic, the arts have found that the role that they can play--and it's a powerful role--in both engaging and in healing and, you know, of course, helping people find joy and in kind of a collective experience once again.

Lisa Barry: [00:06:05] What are the parallels, do you see, between 9/11 and the pandemic?

Matthew VanBesien: [00:06:09] Well, I think the biggest parallel...I mean, there are two clear parallels. One is, of course, the huge and immense disruption, the loss of life, the sense of tragedy and loss that emanates. And, of course, we've been in this pandemic now for well over a year and a half. I think the similarities are that the arts, especially I think I found this during the pandemic, it was amazing to me how the arts really worked to engage people and to keep a connection with people during this time. And, of course, we were all forced into really a digital and virtual space during that time. So, we all learned a lot about how to do that. But we also really found that that's where people went, I think, for solace and for reflection during the pandemic was, you know, not necessarily the Netflix--no respect to Netflix--but it was actually to the arts and artistic performance and artistic expression from artists, from all disciplines and genres. So, I think that that's one thread that I think is really key. The other is that we as artists and arts organizations always should be finding a way to use these sort of what I call disruptive moments, these moments that are tragic--yes--and disruptive--yes, but also give us an opportunity to question who we are, what we want to be, what our values are. We have this great opportunity to work with Wendell Pierce this past year, and he really taught us important and lesson, which was that, in these moments, we decide what our values are, what's important to us, and then we act on them. And I think that parallel with 9/11, I think, is very, very striking.

Lisa Barry: [00:07:59] We're talking to Matthew VanBesien, president of UMS, and we're talking about the arts and maybe some responsibility due to these tragedies that are happening in our world 20 years later after 9/11. And I like to take the easy route and look for music and arts to uplift me. But I also feel like there's some responsibility to help us process our pain. Is that something you agree or disagree with?

Matthew VanBesien: [00:08:23] Absolutely. I think the arts can be a vehicle for learning. They certainly can be a vehicle for engaging people in subject matter or in thinking that they may or may not always be comfortable with. And we've explored this quite a bit at UMS in our No Safety Net series, in our theater programing this coming season. There are certainly some very powerful works, like the adaptation of Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, that will really be performative, wonderful artistic moments, but also be moments that people can experience together and use as a jumping-off point for a set of discussions, formal and informal, about what they've experienced and what it means to us in this moment as a country and as a society in the world.

Lisa Barry: [00:09:16] So, 20 years later, do you think that's still somewhere in your mind what happened during 9/11 or after 9/11 or with the pandemic about what you're going to bring to Washtenaw County performance arts participants?

Matthew VanBesien: [00:09:30] I think it has to be. And so, it's interesting, you know, all of us in the arts are a little bit guilty of sort of idealizing these sort of anniversary moments, these sort of milestones, whether we're it's our own organization's anniversary or an anniversary of something tragic like 9/11. But I think the work has to happen every day. And I said to you when we spoke recently that I think the thing about the new normal isn't that there isn't going to be one. And that's actually a good thing because it really is this moment of stepping back from who we are and what we do and saying how do we want to use our artistry, our institutions, our ability to convene people to help affect change and make the world a better place for people. So, that's work I think that we have to do each and every day in the arts.

Lisa Barry: [00:10:25] University of Michigan UMS President Matthew VanBesien. Thank you for everything you do to uplift us and distract us and enrich our lives here in the Washtenaw County area in southeast Michigan.

Matthew VanBesien: [00:10:38] Thank you, Lisa.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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