From January 27 through February 5 Music Director Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic, and Anthony Roth Costanzo celebrate the complexity of identity through a variety of prisms with Authentic Selves: The Beauty Within. The orchestral concerts include World Premieres by Gregory Spears and Joel Thompson—both settings of poetry by 22nd US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith—alongside works by Julius Eastman and Joan Tower, Beethoven, and Berlioz. Trans-genre artist Justin Vivian Bond joins Costanzo for Nico Muhly’s new arrangement of songs from across centuries.
As the Philharmonic and Costanzo embark on Authentic Selves: The Beauty Within, writer Jennifer Finney Boylan shares her thoughts.
The dream of a common language goes back at least as far as the Tower of Babel. I’ve studied Latin, German, and Irish—but the more languages I speak, the more convinced I am that the thing that connects us all is not a language at all.
Michael O’Donoghue, National Lampoon alumnus and original head writer for Saturday Night Live, once published a poem suggesting the one universal truth of human existence. In it, a blizzard blows an Inuit man “way down to Egypt-land / He found they had no word for snow, and he no word for sand. / For years they searched to try and find the thing that each man shares. / And in the end, to their surprise, they found that thing was bears.”
That may well be true. But personally, I yearn for something that might bring people together besides the fear of getting devoured.
Some people probably find it easy enough to find a connection with others, but as a transgender woman I know I sometimes feel alone; there have been times I have felt like the only one of me in the world. This is especially true when I consider the canon of great books and art and music, a canon in which people like me all too often have been invisible.
I spent this autumn in Italy, at Civitella Ranieri, an artists’ residency in Umbria. One day, we took a field trip to the medieval city of Urbino. And there, in the frescoes of the Oratorio of San Giovanni Batista, I saw two lovely, unshaven men wearing black robes. One of them held a goshawk with tiny bells on its talons. The other had placed his hands lovingly on the shoulders of his friend.
My guide explained that some historians consider the hawk a symbol for gay love in Renaissance art. In her memoir H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald writes of falconers as a fellowship of men “who felt a love that other people did not understand.”
Those men with the goshawk had been painted over 500 years ago. But seeing them there reminded me that I am not the only one of me; there have been queer people — men and women and nonbinary souls — throughout the whole of human history.
Later, at the National Museum of Archeology in Naples, I saw a fresco of what the Romans called a hermaphrodite, a work of such tenderness it took my breath away. I looked at her in wonder, thinking, I know you. You could be my own twin sister.
This January and February, in Authentic Selves: The Beauty Within, New York Philharmonic audiences will get the chance to consider issues of sex and gender and identity in a new way.
These concerts, curated with Anthony Roth Costanzo, remind us of the power of art to transform our lives, and to celebrate the many ways there are of being human.
As a means of finding common ground, and opening our hearts, you have to admit: it’s better than fear, even the fear of bears.
Jennifer Finney Boylan has written for The New York Times Opinion pages since 2007. She is the author of 15 books, including the novel Long Black Veil. She is the Anna Quindlen writer in residence at Barnard College of Columbia University.
For more on Authentic Selves: The Beauty Within, visit nyphil.org/selves.