Michigan’s Song of Itself

THE University of Michigan had a chance to shine at the end of February when our symphony orchestra toured by bus from Ann Arbor to Carnegie Hall. The musicians made stops at Oberlin and Cornell before getting to West 57th Street. Kenneth Kiesler, our maestro, selected Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and a new composition by a faculty member, Evan Chambers, called “The Old Burying Ground” to show the talents of our student musicians. Because one of my poems is included in the Chambers work, I found myself among the fresh-faced virtuosi as they made their debut on the nation’s most prestigious stage.

To sit waiting for my moment behind the first violins rehearsing Mahler’s heartbreaking Adagietto was a gift that nearly overwhelmed with memories — Luchino Visconti’s film and Thomas Mann’s novella “Death in Venice,” and Robert Kennedy’s requiems at St. Patrick’s Cathedral 40 years ago this June. I felt like a heartsick Aschenbach, fresh from the barbers, vexed by the grim and dismal in the midst of hope and beauty.

It was a brilliant night! The great hall packed, the music transcendent, the voices resplendent, the ovations longstanding.

“I had this aim to create a work that sounded as if the voices were rising from the ground,” said Evan Chambers. And it put me in mind of the groundswell, bottom-up, collaborative politics of change that has been much in play this primary season. To hear his composition played and sung in Carnegie’s perfect acoustics was a triumph and a gift.

Alas, a triumph and gift that went unremarked-upon and unreviewed: no mention made, as far as I could tell, in the dailies in New York or Detroit or Ann Arbor. It is true: bad news gets halfway round the world before good news has its boots laced up. The easy litany of things gone wrong in Michigan gets more of a forum than what’s gone right.

Most of the ink and airtime of late around here has been spent on the self-inflicted fall from grace of Detroit’s hapless mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who has been indicted for perjury in his alleged efforts to cover up a sex scandal. He has Bill Clinton’s trouble with mendacity and George W. Bush’s on-his-sleeve religiosity; the former president’s lapses of self-control and the current one’s insuperable hubris. Like Mr. Clinton he’s gotten in trouble with women. Like Mr. Bush, he reckons he’s “on assignment from God.” All three men have misspent their considerable gifts — some inherited, some acquired, some congenital — and have disappointed beyond all expectations.

So now the National Conference of Black Mayors, which had been scheduled for Detroit in April, will go to New Orleans in June instead. “It’s not that we’re against Detroit, or the people of Detroit or even Mayor Kilpatrick; we just want to keep focus on our issues,” said George Grace, president of the conference.

By comparison, the perseverance of our governor, Jennifer Granholm, gets little notice. Her efforts to diversify the economy, double the number of college graduates and restore our cities are not nearly as engaging as the soap opera that has been playing out in Detroit. The Government Performance Project at the Pew Center for the States graded Michigan’s management with a B-plus this year; only three states scored better.

As she has put it: “We need to capitalize on our natural advantages … Wind. Woods. Water. Work force. Even waste. If we do this right, Michigan can be the alternative energy capital of North America, and create thousands and thousands of jobs.” Her faith in the future is contagious. So is despair. Sometimes we vote our hopes, sometimes our fears.

Among those young musicians of Michigan at Carnegie Hall, I felt the way supporters say they do at a Barack Obama event — that maybe we are worthy of our better dreams. A symphony orchestra is an exercise in collaboration, in bringing diverse tools and talents to bear on a common purpose. The worst of times might give way to the best, the winter will at last give way to spring, that out of all the noise and nonsense, blather and racket we might make song and poetry and music.

Thomas Lynch, a funeral director and lecturer at the University of Michigan, is the author of the memoir “Booking Passage.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

April 6, 2008
Michigan’s Song of Itself

Milford, Mich.