Refuge at PAC NYC: More than a concert, an act of faith

During the second of the five concerts that are launching the new performing arts center at the World Trade Center, the violinist Trina Basu went up to the microphone after her set and said aloud the words that were suddenly projected on the backdrop: “Talk to someone in the audience, but someone you don’t know, and share a moment with them where you understood another person’s faith in a new way.”

Oh no. This was what I was afraid of.

The entire series is entitled “Refuge: A Concert Series to Welcome The World,” but this one was called “Devotion: Faith as Refuge.” I was only here because the first one, “NYC Tapestry: Home as Refuge” had already sold out.  I had considered myself lucky to get anything: Tickets for all five sold out quickly, not least because there was a “pay what you wish” option – a phrase that’s accurate only if what you wished to pay was a minimum of $24. That was still a bargain to see an impressive roster of world-class musicians and fan favorites, such as Laurie Anderson, Common, Jose Feliciano, the Klezmatics.

The Klezmatics were the only one of the half dozen groups in the “Faith as Refuge” concert that I had heard before – or even heard of – but they were enough: I have always loved this hip band’s lively brand of klezmer music (aka Jewish jazz.)

When Trina Basu asked us to share, I suddenly felt the way I do when I’ve accepted an invitation by friend or family to attend a religious service – stuck, but afraid of offending. So I dutifully turned to the stranger sitting on my left. “I wish I could share a moment, but I can’t think of any,” I told her apologetically. “I’m not observant,” I said lamely, and added, inanely: “My brother is.”

“I’m not either,” she said, adding: “My sister is.”

That was not the biggest surprise of my evening. The four hours of stunning music began and ended with free performances on the Vartan and Clare Gregorian Stage in the lobby of the glowing eight-story cube officially known as the Perelman Performing Arts Center, nicknamed PAC NYC.  At 7 p.m., before the main Refuge concert, I sat in an armchair and listened to the harmonious choral musical of The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, sung by two dozen tenors, altos and sopranos dressed in formal concert black; at 10:30 p.m., after the main concert,  I returned to the lobby to attend to the pulsing, pounding, squeaking,  futuristic, folkloric, Afro-Cuban and Jamaican live electronic sounds of IFÉ, led by percussionist Otura Mun, dressed in what looked like the uniform of the coolest-ever Air Force, complete with red beret and black glasses.

The Refuge concert itself took place in two of the three theaters on the fourth floor combined together – the John Zuccotti Theater and the Mike Nichols Theater, or, as my usher called them, A and B. I had gotten a seat on the Upper Balcony, which turned out to be a particular perch form which to take in  music that could not have been more varied. Even the instruments they played were different: Members of Innov Gnawa, a city-based ensemble steeped in Moroccan culture, performed on the guembri (a three-stringed African bass) qraqeb (large iron castanets) and the tbul drum, while the Klezmatics favored accordion and clarinet, and conductor and composer Damien Sneed relied on the soul-shaking, gospel-infused voices of the soloists in his Chorale Le Chateau.

In their different ways, though, they expressed a belief in what they all saw as the message of the show.   The Klezmatics, before performing a song by Woody Guthrie, explained that it reflected the night’s “great theme of faith and home and refuge.  This is all about the sanctity of the planet that we live on. His words are a Bible story about how every grain of dirt, every speck of dust, is holy.”

Samarth Nagarkar, a Hindustani classical vocalist who had joined the set by Trna Basu and her partner Arun Ramamurthy” to sing songs based on 3,000-year-old Indian texts, explained that his music embodies a concept in Hinduism that he explained as saying: “God is sound. Sound is God,” 

Maalem Hassan BenJaafar of Innov Gnawa told us he was part of another musical group of jazz musicians from all over the world, including Israel and the U.S. as well as Morocco. “We are Muslims we are Jews, we are united by music.”

“With an evening like tonight, we can change the world,” Damien Sneed said, “using faith as refuge, as a safe place.”

Listening all this, taking in all the awe-inspiring music, I suddenly realized that I could fulfill Trina Basu’s prompt; I did have a moment when I understood another person’s faith in a new way, and it involved the very spot where the concert was taking place

I happened to be there on 9/11. It was primary day in New York City. I was working as the editor for an online publication founded by Citizens Union Foundation about New York City politics and policy, and had gotten up early to interview the two major candidates for mayor (Michael Bloomberg and Mark Green) at their respective polling sites, and then rushed to write it all up at our office, which was down the block from the Twin Towers.

The next day, assembled in a makeshift office away from the wreckage, we launched a new site, Rebuilding NYC, a resource which we kept going every day for the next several years. 

It was during this stressful time that I realized that one of them was deeply but unostentatiously religious, expressing their faith in good works. I don’t want to embarrass this person by singling them out, nor do I mean to imply that everybody else on staff were heathens. Mark Berkey-Gerard, Joshua Brustein, Oates Rittichai, Erica Pearson, Gail Robinson were all committed journalists dedicated to making a difference – and they have done so in their careers since.

It was no coincidence that I thought of them sitting there at The PAC,  because among the work we did to track the painful and painstaking desires, debates, delays involved in rebuilding on the World Trade Center site was the convoluted  effort to turn it into a place for the performing arts.  

It took nearly three years for a plan to take shape for four cultural institutions on the site – a memorial, a museum, a cultural center, and a performing arts center. Two vibrant cultural organizations were selected to take up residence in the performing arts center, the Joyce International Dance Center and the Signature Theater Company, and Frank Gehry was hired to design the building.

Less than a year later, these plans for the performing arts center imploded, and were completely scrapped a decade later. (The cultural center, for its own complicated reasons, was also shelved, never to be revived.) It was “the final betrayal,” famed Wall Street Journal architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in 2005, by those who lack “the courage, or conviction, to demand that the arts be restored to their proper place as one of the city’s greatest strengths and a source of its spiritual continuity.”

The arts as a source of the city’s spiritual continuity.

I had long since stopped following the day-to-day developments at the World Trade Center site when billionaire Ronald Perelman donated $75 million in 2016 to restart the performing arts center, and construction got under way in 2017. Its opening, originally scheduled for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 in 2021, was delayed because of the pandemic.

But here it is, and here I was, attending one of the first performances in the new building, and listening to the performing artists on stage talk about faith.

It wasn’t a given that the performing arts center would ever happen. I won’t say it was a miracle. But it took faith.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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