CHARLEMONT -- Composers have long used music to unite people in a shared emotional experience, soothing the pain of mourning and releasing anguish in ways words never can. Requiems immortalize the passing of greatness, Taps honors the fallen, Samuel Barber's aching Adagio echoes collective national despair.
At this weekend's season opening in Charlemont, Mohawk Trail Concerts will commemorate the loss of innocents with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan's Horn Quartet, written in tribute to the 20 children and six staff members gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and performed by Laura Klock on French Horn, violinist Elizabeth Chang, cellist Volcy Pelletier and Alissa Leiser on piano.
Spratlan had planned to create a horn chamber piece to mark Klock's retirement from UMass . When the 2012 massacre occurred, he decided to use the new piece to reflect on the tragedy.
"It blew me off my feet, just sent me over the edge," he said. "I've been at my wits' end about gun violence in this country for years."
The horn has such a range of expressive dimensions, he said: "It can have tremendous power but can also be enormously soothing."
Spratlan writes in his northern Berkshire studio overlooking Mount Greylock, "an idyllic spot on top of a hill, incredibly quiet and peaceful," he said. The composing was cathartic, "spilling out with a great sense of urgency in six weeks."
The work is in three parts -- Massacre, Response and Farewell. The first part is quite violent, he said, the second "the moment of realization that a horrific thing has occurred." The third part is consoling and contemplates final thoughts about the children, drawing on images of heaven to suggest a continuation of these lives on a level beyond the earthly one, he said.
"I would be fibbing if I said I felt less rage having written the piece," he said, "but I feel like I've made an attempt at a public gathering together of a response."
He considers music's universality a cliché that's profoundly true.
"It cuts across cultures and class lines, tapping into the most universal form of human experience," he said. Unlike dance or artwork, "music penetrates us whether we want it to or not. It's a very immediate, immersive kind of medium."
The Horn Quartet's only other performance was to a packed house at UMass. Mohawk Trail Concerts director Ruth Black was there to experience it.
"It was breathtaking, so vivid and moving," she said. "I thought, that's a marvelous example of how music with no words can convey the whole atmosphere and feeling of the response and violence."
She asked Spratlan right away to program the piece,and was explicit about wanting it at the season opener.
"It fit in exactly with the festival theme of Storytelling in Music," Black explained. "The rest of the program is lighthearted baroque music played on historic instruments such as harpsichord, viola de gamba, baroque violin. We've carefully programmed old and new, going from Renaissance music to something very contemporary. Hopefully one will throw illuminations on the other."
The Horn Quartet is a sad and powerful piece to put at the end of a program, she acknowledged.
"But what can you do? You can't put it at the beginning," she said. "You can't put it at the end, but you need to do it. I think everybody will be moved."
Over the years, Mohawk Trail Concerts has presented many Spratlan works and commissioned him with other local composers to set laureate RIchard Wilbur's poems to music.
"I'm a great believer in contemporary and challenging music," Black explained. "Sometimes people are quite startled, but they recognize that new music has to be heard. We've twice had awards for our programming based on exactly that."
The concert marks two milestones: the farewell concert performance of Klock's long career, and Black's final season as director of the festival her late husband Arnold Black founded 45 years ago.
"Together we were able to create interesting and very diverse programs," she reflected. "There's never any problem finding musicians -- they want to play repertoire they enjoy and feel committed to."
This season's acclaimed, eclectic lineup includes composer William Balcom, pianist Gil Kalish, soprano Lucy Shelton and jazz guitarist Freddie Bryant.
Now 86, Black feels it's time to transition to somebody else, and she will hand over the reins to Canadian cellist Mark Fraser at the season's end.
"They'll make their own stamp on it," she predicted. "It's not about me. It's about music."
And, for a brief moment, about the memory of children.
If you go ...
What: Mohawk Trail Concerts season opener: ‘Now and Then'
Performers: Elizabeth Chang, Susanna Ogata, violin; Alice Robbins, viola da gamba; Volcy Pelletier, cello; Christopher Krueger, flute; Laura Klock, horn; Gregory Hayes, harpsichord; Alissa Leiser, piano
Where: Federated Church, Charlemont
When: 7 p.m. Friday, June 27 Free open rehearsal
7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 28 Ticketed concert
Admission: $20 for adults,
$18 for seniors/students
Information: (413) 625-9511, mohawktrailconcerts.org