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In ‘Across the Calm Waters,’ composer finds hope in horror

Ahmed Alabaca, the young American composer featured on this week’s Masterworks program, believes in the healing power of art. In his work, Across the Calm Waters of Heaven – A Piece for Peace, he transforms horror into hope.

The horror occurred on December 2, 2015, when a married couple carried out a brazen attack at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California. Of the 80 people at the event, 14 were killed and 22 wounded before police pursued the suspects, who died in a shootout.

Like many people around the country, Alabaca was shaken by the mass shooting, more so because it happened in his hometown. This was only one of many that would continue with alarming frequency – as if nothing could be done to stop the carnage.

But hope would come to Alabaca, who channeled his feelings through music. A year later, he finished his score, Across the Calm Waters, which receives its TFO premiere this weekend (March 13 & 14) under the baton of Music Director Michael Francis.

Alabaca describes the 11-minute work as an emotional journey that explores the nature of loss, grief and love. Although he wrote it following the shootings in San Bernardino, he says it transcends time and place, and took on a “bigger meaning’’ after the 2016 mass murder of 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando. It represents the victims of senseless acts of violence everywhere, but it also symbolizes something more.

“The piece begins by capturing the mixed feelings of loss and anticipation felt by the victims as they leave behind their bodies and their lives here on Earth and begin their ascension into the love and care of their new eternal home,’’ Alabaca explains. “The work flows forward, capturing the awe and joy felt by the arrivals to their new home, a place of peace, love and beauty.’’

Midway through the work, a solo piano emerges from the strings, its plaintive melody suggesting a “calm lake’’ – a moment of reflection. The strings soon return, their soft contours slowly fading into quiet, leaving what Alabaca calls a sense of “peace, reassurance and healing to others.’’ But how does a composer turn something so tragic into something so positive, so beautiful?

“For me, it’s actually simple, because the tragedy is the thing we recognize but we aren’t in the tragedy itself,’’ he said by phone. “To focus on the tragedy is to focus on the shooter, and I’m not going to do that.’’

Instead, Alabaca turned his attention to the victims. “The beauty is in those people, who were having their own version of life that day, but were worth so much more. They were beautiful human beings.’’

Alabaca’s music is part of a program called Serenity, which Maestro Francis put together as a moment of comfort for listeners, especially after more than a year of Covid. The lineup includes Tomaso Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto No. 2, Op. 9; Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight; Bruckner’s Christus Factus est (adapted for low brass by Ross Holcombe); Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

“We have experienced 12 months unlike anything before,’’ Francis said. “As we begin to move forward together with optimism, we wanted to curate an event that gives us a chance to pause and reflect. This concert is a haven: a serene musical space for peace, beauty and contemplation.’’

Sat, Mar 13, 2 pm & 8 pm
Sun, Mar 14, 2 pm
All performances at the Mahaffey Theater
Tickets start at $23