Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Program notes: Writings Etched in My Soul

I sing with the Oahu Choral Society, and we are performing a Veterans Day/Remembrance Day concert this Friday, November 11 at 7:30pm at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Honolulu. I volunteered to write the program notes and am posting them here, too.

Graphic designed by Katherine Fisher

Often, feeling intense emotion leads humans to open their mouths and sing. This act of deep expression further solidifies those words and feelings in our hearts. Few human events produce a greater variety of intense emotions—pain, suffering, loss, hope, joy, and triumph—than war. This program presents some of these war stories and the emotions that come with them, not just tragedy and loss, but also hope, peace, and resolution. We hope that these selections allow for positive reflection on the human experience for this Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day, as November 11th is celebrated in many countries).

The Holocaust (also often called the Shoah, from the Hebrew word for catastrophe) is one of most brutal and hard-to-comprehend tragedies of war in modern times. The selection for the first half of the program, the Holocaust Cantata, presents stories from Nazi concentration camps. The inspiration, texts, and basis of the music for the cantata come from materials found in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archives. Musical movements alternate with spoken stories drawn largely from the life of Irena AugustyƱska Kafka, a Polish Holocaust survivor. For many European Jews, as well as individuals from other ethnic and cultural groups imprisoned in concentration camps during this time, song was an escape and refuge. In the words of the cantata’s narrator, “I can honestly say that singing saved my life.” While the cantata portrays the stories and suffering of those in concentration camps, it also highlights life-affirming choices made by those same people—to dance, to fight, and to make music.

The Chamber Choir’s selections deal with human struggle. “MLK,” originally from U2’s 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire and later arranged for a cappella voices by the King’s Singers, features a gentle yet strong lullaby melody with sparse accompaniment that shows the contrasts of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and his struggle for peace. “Even When He is Silent,” by Kim Arnesen, is a statement of faith in the midst of struggle. The anonymous text was found written on a concentration camp wall after World War II, and Arnesen portrays in the music the glorious brightness of hope in defiance of a dismal present. Paul Aitken’s setting of “Flanders Fields,” from the famous 1915 poem written by Canadian soldier-poet John McCrae in the midst of World War I, may seem at first to be solely about the struggle of war, but the text is also a plea to survivors to move on—but not forget. The setting gives a profound voice to the dead, betraying an urgency for us, the living, to commit to honor the sacrifice of those who have passed on. Finally, Moses Hogan’s setting of the traditional spiritual “The Battle of Jericho” is about a struggle-turned-triumph through one man, Joshua of the Old Testament, obeying divine instructions. Hogan’s masterful arrangement creates a call-and-response battle between the groups of singers, culminating in a grand musical depiction of the tumbling walls.

The next four selections in the program look forward to a future without war. “The Mansions of the Lord” (from the movie We Were Soldiers) is a triumphant hymn that envisions a peaceful rest at the end of the struggle. Srul Irving Glick’s “The Hour Has Come” is a heartfelt invitation for mankind to come together amid pain, banish hate and suffering in favor of love, and see each other finally not as enemies but as family. The next two selections praise the leaders necessary to reach this post-war goal. “Benedictus,” from Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, delivers a fragile melody with a fragile message: “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.” “The Last Words of David,” one of the most popular works of Randall Thompson, depicts such a leader, but instead of being defined strength, the desired leader is compared to morning sunlight on growing grass—someone who builds rather than razes. After a bombastic introduction, the piece slowly becomes more calm, concluding with an almost-whispered “alleluia.”

The final selection of the evening is Peter Wilhousky’s iconic arrangement of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a thrilling evocation of the coming of Christ crossed with the fight for the freedom of slaves during the American Civil War. Listen for the organ imitating battle trumpets and the quiet, contemplative men’s verse in the middle of triumphant, full choruses.

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