Bel Canto commemoration of the Civil War taps deep emotions
The tectonic forces unleashed by the Civil War were recognized Sunday (March 13) in the second of a series of Bel Canto concerts dedicated to the 150th anniversary of that conflict.
The Bel Canto chorus joined with the Baptist College of Ministry Concert Chorale and the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra for a concert featuring two contemporary tributes to the Civil War. Both composers were present for the event.
The Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra channeled a Sousa band for an opening number – Festival Overture on the National Air. Two years after the end of the Civil War, Dudley Buck composed variations on the Star Spangled Banner – a rousing construction that ended with the Bel Canto chorus and audience singing the anthem itself. Honoring the flag expressed the call for unity after the bitter battles of that war. This was an apt way to begin an inspiring afternoon concert.
The two major works tapped the same themes and emotions. Both used selections from poetry and traversed the same arc – contemplation of war, the horror of battle and the grief and reconciliation that followed. Both called upon a full range of orchestral resources as well as full chorus. Both were highly impassioned, dramatic – even operatic – in their presentation.
Music director Richard Hynson commissioned the first work from a local composer, Daniel Van Gelderen, music director at the Baptist College of Ministry and Falls Baptist Church. Remembrance: A Musical Legacy of the American Civil War produced the more well-balanced emotional impact.
Ethereal strings and languid woodwinds open the work. Rich harmonies and melodies convey words by Francis Miles Finch; “Asleep are the ranks of the dead: Under the sod and the dew.” A solo trumpet expresses the central musical theme as a call to battle. Orchestra and chorus erupt in a fierce battle scene conjured by Herman Melville from the turning point of the war, General Pickett’s futile charge across an open field at Gettysburg: “Before him went the shriek of shells, aerial screaming, taunts and yells…They smote and fell, who set the bars against the progress of the stars.” The scene clears, the integral theme echos in solo trumpet and oboe – now as a memorial. The chorus ends on a gentle note of mourning returning to words by Finch: “Love and tears for the Blue. Tears and love for the Gray.”
Bright orchestration, full chorus and raw emotion mark the work. Although the dynamic passages were designed for impact, the effect was best during the quiet, less orchestrated sections. This was an auspicious composition for a young (23) but already prolific composer.
Joseph Baber, composer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky, wrote the second work, An American Requiem, in 1999. At 44 minutes, Requiem is a much larger work. Baber pieced together words from more than 40 sources.
The work opens with Walt Whitman celebrating the land, reflects on John Brown’s role as a catalyst – “The meteor of war” and presents men preparing to leave for war – “Sarah, something whispers to me that I shall return. If I do not, my last breath shall whisper your name.” These elements were sung as opera – recitative – with restrained emotion.
A central battle scene calls out all the resources of orchestra and chorus – full percussion, screaming strings, dramatic choral sections: “They come ten thousand strong…they fall like wheat before the scythe… bursting shells crash through the trees …. there was nothing to do but stand and take what come.”
In the aftermath of battle, the chorus reflects on what has been witnessed. A series of individual voices testify – “The rifle pits, the dead horses, shattered windows and stone walls all scattered. And many soldier’s graves.“ The choral sections were tender, but too calming. The individual soloists seemed to cry out – their agony was evident. “There is no hope. Since Atlanta I have felt if all were dead within me forever.” A refrain – “Many thousands gone” emerges to frame the witnesses. The refrain is transformed into a spiritual hymn, ‘No more slavery chains for me. Many thousands gone.”
An epilogue celebrates a healing nation – “New birth of our new soil.” One more full bore emotional outburst occurs – “Clash out, glad bells, from every rocking steeple! My country! Ours once more!” before a quiet close – “Peace in our hearts, in our homes. In the highway, in a thousand fields.”
After the more direct message of Van Gelderen’s work, An American Requiem seems too comprehensive. The mix of recitative, solos, dynamic choral passages, raging dissonance of battle, emotional release and celebration frame a full operatic treatment of the war.
The audience was enthusiastic, but emotionally drained. Choral members spoke later of their affective experience with the works. Some spoke of the power of the words, as well as the music. The full program, with full text of the selections is online.
The afternoon began on a pleasant note, with a dance performance by the West Side Soldier’s Aid Society Victorian Dancers in a crowded church parlor. The gentile quadrilles recalled the prelude to the civil war, before the divisive horror of the event.
The Bel Canto season will close with a final commemoration of the Civil War in a concert, Give Us Peace, on May 21 at the Oconomowoc Arts Center. Details here.