Mark­ing re­mem­brance through mu­sic

Three dif­fer­ent con­certs ex­plore tragedy, peace, and even the sounds of march­ing and war­fare

The Georgia Straight - - Arts - By Alexan­der Varty

It is not, Mark Haney read­ily ad­mits, any­thing like be­ing in the trenches of Flan­ders, with the smell of pu­tre­fac­tion in the air, rats scrab­bling be­neath the duck­boards, and shrap­nel zing­ing over­head. In fact, Moun­tain View Ceme­tery is quite a rest­ful place—al­most an ur­ban oa­sis, es­pe­cially on a crisp fall morn­ing. Nonethe­less, the artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Lit­tle Cham­ber Mu­sic Series That Could won’t be de­terred by rain on Re­mem­brance Day, be­cause a del­uge will only am­plify the sen­ti­ments of his Cen­tum Cor­pora, a new work for massed brass that hon­ours 100 of the First World War dead now ly­ing un­der the ceme­tery’s sod.

“Ob­vi­ously, I’m hop­ing for a nice, sunny day; that would be great,” Haney says, in a tele­phone in­ter­view from his East Van­cou­ver home. “But it might even be more poignant if it’s bad weather, ’cause it will cap­ture some tiny lit­tle shred of what the peo­ple we’re rep­re­sent­ing went through.

“A tiny lit­tle shred,” he stresses. “I’m cer­tainly not mak­ing a di­rect con­nec­tion be­tween play­ing a brass in­stru­ment and be­ing in the trenches.”

In­deed, there can be no com­par­i­son. And yet, when the bat­tles are over, art can bring some con­so­la­tion to the sur­vivors, and that’s the think­ing be­hind a num­ber of con­certs sched­uled for this week­end—and to co­in­cide with the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of the First World War.

Cen­tum Cor­pora, whose Latin ti­tle trans­lates as “100 bod­ies”, plays off that cen­te­nary in both its struc­ture and its solem­nity. With the mar­tial rhythms of field per­cus­sion keep­ing the beat, 100 in­stru­men­tal­ists—con­vened with the help of the Homego­ing Brass Band—will play a se­quence of notes rep­re­sent­ing the names of the dead, the num­bers of their reg­i­ments, and the dates of their deaths.

“The hope is that this just be­comes very med­i­ta­tive,” Haney says. “It’s cer­tainly got a bit of a march­ing feel. I’m not re­ally try­ing to em­u­late any­thing, but I def­i­nitely want that feel there, like an army march­ing across France or Eng­land in the First World War at a re­lent­less, steady pace. And then the hope is that af­ter the 100 rep­e­ti­tions, the si­lence that fol­lows will just be deaf­en­ing.”


Day per­for­mances are staged in­doors, but for this year’s When There Is Peace: An Ar­mistice Or­a­to­rio, com­poser Zachary Wadsworth has been tasked with bring­ing a sense of the sol­dier’s ex­pe­ri­ence to the stage, in ser­vice of an as­sort­ment of po­ems, let­ters, and front­line mem­oirs from the First World War. In an ear­lier choral piece, To the Roar­ing Wind, Wadsworth brought both tem­pests and zephyrs into the con­cert hall, but this, he says, re­quires greater care, and greater pre­ci­sion.

“I al­ways want to paint a vis­ceral sense of place, and of course there’s no more vis­ceral place than the trenches of this war,” the 35-year-old com­poser says, on the line from New York City. “But of course, it’s tricky. When you say ‘wind’, my mind goes im­me­di­ately to ob­vi­ous tim­bral ideas. But in this piece, how do you cre­ate the sound of that

Sta­bat Mater;

kind of iso­la­tion, of that kind of mois­ture, of that sense of be­ing trapped?

“Hav­ing per­cus­sion—we have two per­cus­sion­ists in the piece—al­lows us to bring in re­ally vivid and often very loaded sounds, like snare drums, for ex­am­ple, or church bells,” he con­tin­ues. “Those sounds have very ob­vi­ous mu­si­cal mean­ing, and ex­tra­mu­si­cal mean­ing. But other than that, in this piece you hear the sounds of soldiers march­ing; we use the bod­ies of the mem­bers of the cho­rus to cre­ate dis­tant march­ing sounds at a time when a sol­dier is hav­ing a flashback to friends he lost, march­ing in the war.”

By con­jur­ing an em­pa­thy with the soldiers’ plight, Wadsworth and Chor Leoni artis­tic di­rec­tor Erick Lichte—who as­sem­bled the li­bretto with Peter Roth­stein—hope to strengthen our de­sire for peace, an es­pe­cially ap­pro­pri­ate task in this era of pug­na­cious na­tion­al­ism. And the three didn’t choose their ti­tle lightly.

“It’s one that we ar­rived at af­ter a lot of con­ver­sa­tion,” the com­poser ex­plains. “And I won­der if it isn’t a lit­tle bit ironic, be­cause the idea of the war to end all wars was such an ob­vi­ous myth. And the idea of ar­riv­ing at peace through vi­o­lence is a myth that we con­tinue to per­pet­u­ate to this day, with pre­emp­tive strikes and things like this—pre­vent­ing vi­o­lence by cre­at­ing vi­o­lence. But by re­mem­ber­ing and think­ing through events, we can hope­fully con­tinue to learn from them, even now.”

OVER AT THE VAN­COU­VER Sym­phony Orches­tra, newly in­stalled mu­sic di­rec­tor Otto Tausk has a some­what more com­plex task to con­sider: how to hon­our the cen­te­nary of the Ar­mistice, and also the orches­tra’s own 100th birth­day. He’s opted to go gen­eral, by pro­gram­ming a work that is all about sor­row and redemp­tion, but that was writ­ten prior to the hor­rific events of the 20th cen­tury. Not en­tirely coin­ci­den­tally, it’s also a piece that for some un­known rea­son the VSO has never per­formed be­fore.

When An­ton Dvořák wrote his mas­sive Sta­bat Mater—in which the VSO will be joined by the UBC Uni­ver­sity Singers and four pow­er­ful soloists—he was in a state of psy­chic des­o­la­tion, but he off­loaded some of his sor­row into the Catholic story of the Vir­gin Mary’s vigil over the cru­ci­fied Christ.

“The mu­sic we know by Dvořák— or that we know well, like the ‘New World’ sym­phony—is full of en­ergy and light,” Tausk ex­plains, talk­ing to the Straight from his home in Wa­genin­gen, Nether­lands. “He was a pos­i­tive and very vi­brant com­poser. But, ac­tu­ally, his per­sonal life was tragic. His daugh­ter, Josepha, died, and then his sec­ond daugh­ter died, and also his son died. So he had a great per­sonal loss, but some­how he found help or sup­port in mu­sic, and also in faith. And so with the Sta­bat Mater, the whole piece is ac­tu­ally put into words right at the very be­gin­ning, with ‘Sta­bat Mater do­lorosa iuxta crucem lac­rimosa dum pen­de­bat Fil­ius’: ‘The griev­ing mother by the cross where her son is cru­ci­fied.’ And this im­age of a mother weep­ing for her child is maybe sym­bolic for ev­ery fam­ily that lost some­body in the First World War, you know. I find it very strong, very pow­er­ful.

“It’s such a beau­ti­ful piece, and it’s such a sad piece at the same time,” Tausk con­tin­ues. “And it’s also a piece that some­how gives hope. It’s just the per­fect piece for com­mem­o­rat­ing such a tragedy as the First World War. The work is not so very well-known, but I think it should be well-known, be­cause I think it’s one of the best works ever writ­ten for choir and orches­tra— and if you’re pro­gram­ming for a spe­cial oc­ca­sion, it should be some­thing that peo­ple can look for­ward to, ex­pe­ri­ence an ex­traor­di­nary evening with, and hope­fully also re­mem­ber.”

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