Three Vancouver concerts mark remembrance of war and peace

The VSO, Chor Leoni, and the Little Chamber Music Series That Could look back across a century to Armistice

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      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.”

      Chor Leoni’s Remembrance 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 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.”

      The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presents Anton Dvořák’s Stabat Mater at the Orpheum on Friday and Saturday (November 9 and 10). Chor Leoni presents When There Is Peace: An Armistice Oratorio at St. Andrew’s–Wesley United Church on Saturday (November 10), and at West Vancouver United Church on Sunday (November 11). The Little Chamber Music Series That Could presents Centum Corpora at Mountain View Cemetery at 11 a.m. on Sunday (November 11).