The first public events at the new $500 million Perelman Performing Arts Center, the opulent new theater near the site of the World Trade Center, are deliberately laden with symbolism. The center is opening its doors with five shows on Sept. 19-23, collectively titled “Refuge: A Concert Series to Welcome the World.”
Each concert offers a different kind of refuge as its theme: Home, Faith, School, Family and Memory. Home (Sept. 19) presents musicians who gravitated from around the world to New York City; Family (Sept. 22) has sibling and multigenerational groups. School (Sept. 21) features musicians who have made education an integral part of their work.
The series affirms the city’s diversity with an international lineup that includes Grammy-winning stars — Angélique Kidjo on Sept. 19, Common on Sept. 21, José Feliciano on Sept. 23 — along with lesser-known musicians dedicated to preserving and extending deep-rooted traditions. The program for Devotion: Faith As Refuge, on Sept. 20, includes klezmer music from the Klezmatics, electronic transformations of Afro-Cuban Yoruba incantations by Ìfé and Moroccan Sufi trance music from Innov Gnawa.
Two decades after the Sept. 11 attack, the center’s artistic director, Bill Rauch, describes the Perelman’s mission as “civic healing.”
“We want to say that everyone is welcome,” Mr. Rauch said. “There’s a lot of trauma and resilience on our part of the island that we want to honor. You know, there were 93 countries represented in the people who lost their lives on 9/11. And so it’s important that we welcome as many different artists and audiences into our building as possible.”
The Perelman joins a New York City arts landscape full of big-budget performing-arts institutions, from Lincoln Center to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to the Shed. Is the scene too crowded? “When every man, woman and child who lives in the five boroughs of New York City has a life that is saturated in performing arts, then we can begin to talk about whether there’s too much,” Mr. Rauch said.
Although the new arts center is a monumental marble cube with elaborate technological underpinnings — theaters that can be configured more than five dozen ways, sitting on foot-thick rubber supports to insulate them from subway noise — the tickets for the inaugural shows were priced pay-what-you-will from $15-120. Most of the concerts are sold out, but some will also feature free after-parties in the Perelman’s public lobby. Forró in the Dark, which plays upbeat music from Northeastern Brazil, follows the Sept. 19 show. The center plans frequent free lobby performances.
Arturo O’Farrill, the pianist who leads the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, is performing on Sept. 20 in the “School as Refuge” concert. He founded the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, which provides instruments and music lessons to public-school students in New York City. When the center was being built, Mr. O’Farrill was part of an advisory committee of artists; he urged the center to pay close attention to acoustics. “I found it incredibly welcoming to artists’ voices,” Mr. O’Farrill said. “That’s not always the case with institutions.”
He added, “Bill’s a very forward-looking person. This programing is about community. He’s a very thoughtful man, and he’s looking to expand the conversation on what performing arts is, what elitism does to the arts. He’s not interested in perpetuating elitism.”
Laurie Anderson, who is to perform on Sept. 19, is pragmatic but hopeful about the center’s future. “Sometimes a place opens and it never finds its audience,” she said. “I always like it when it’s opened up to the people who live in the neighborhood, but nobody lives in that neighborhood — it’s mostly abandoned offices now. So how do you make a community out of a bunch of empty offices? We’ll see. Maybe you make it by bringing music that’s just so incredible that everybody wants to get on the subway and go down there. That would be great.”
Ms. Kidjo, the clarion-voiced singer and songwriter whose albums have connected West African music to the Americas and Europe, was enthusiastic about the center’s inaugural statement. “We are all refugees from somewhere,” she said. In 1983, she fled to Paris from the dictatorship in her homeland, Benin; she now lives in Brooklyn. “I think that each one of us, we have the responsibility and the duty to welcome somebody that is in a dire situation. For a performing arts center to support that speaks straight to my heart. Because everybody needs a place to put your load down and say, ‘I’ve found a place.’
She added, “We have a special status after what happened on 9/11 — to prove our openness to the rest of the world. And we have the place called the Perelman Center right next to ground zero that is open to the whole world. It’s just the beginning. We have to live up to the promise.”