Friday, 13 November 2020

The Challenge of Remembrance

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has stirred the pot to thought-provoking effect in a remarkable Remembrance Day online concert entitled Notinikew (Going to War) – a Program of Remembrance.

This programme, guest-curated by Winnipeg-based indigenous composer Andrew Balfour, swept away Remembrance Day's more conventional expressions of heroism and sacrifice, and forced the audience to confront difficult truths that cut uncomfortably close to home.

In this respect, the concert followed the path blazed 58 years ago by Benjamin Britten's stunning War Requiem, a work which was "hostile to received notions of patriotism," as Eric Roseberry so tellingly wrote in a 1991 programme note.

Through immersion in Balfour's powerful compositions, and in the equally powerful poetry and commentaries of Elder Dr. Duke Redbird, the audience were brought face to face with the experiences of war as lived by indigenous soldiers and their communities.

While the army was eager to embrace the sharp-shooting skills of some of Canada's most skilled and experienced hunters, the country was certainly less eager to extend equal respect to them once the fighting had ended.  This duality of experience was searingly articulated through poetry, speech, and music.

The concert opened with Duke Redbird's poem,  A Dish With One Spoon, telling the indigenous perspective of how the land, its beauty, its riches, its waterways, is to be shared by all and with all.

Balfour's choral piece Ambe, a song of welcome, built appropriately on the feeling expressed by the poem, in a video of a 2019 live concert performance by the Mendelssohn Choir under conductor David Fallis.  This lively piece, almost in the character of a scherzo, showed off the agility of the choir in handling darting cross-rhythms.

The heart of the concert came next with four video excerpts from Balfour's choral drama, Notinikew.  This overtly anti-war work, premiered in 2019, takes us far beyond the factual boundaries of historic conflicts, becoming a drama of all indigenous warriors in all wars at all times -- with its central soldier figure becoming Everyman.

The first movement, Calling All Okicitawak (Warriors), and the last two, were taken from a public performance last year in Winnipeg by the Camerata Nova and their artistic director, Balfour, who appeared as the soldier-everyman figure, singing with heart-rending passion.

The rhythmically and harmonically intricate Anthem For a Doomed Youth, which came next, took up a poem by Wilfred Owen also used by Britten in the War Requiem, although here it was treated very differently -- the words divided up and chanted in overlapping phrases by the choristers.  The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir displayed again their mettle in a gripping virtual performance of a technically challenging piece.

The third movement, I went to war, returned us to the Winnipeg performance.

Between the movements, Balfour held brief dialogues with Elder Dr. Duke Redbird, seeking his view on the relation of the indigenous people to these conflicts that were rooted in centuries of European history.  It was after I went to war that Redbird turned overtly to the issue of the residential schools, raising the very valid question: was this the "freedom" that the indigenous soldiers had given their lives to establish?

That question,  hanging in the air, lent additional poignancy and point to the remainder of the concert, beginning with the fourth excerpt from Notinikew, which was entitled Kookum (Grandmother) -- Help me.  Here, the Winnipeg Boys Choir took a key role, the purity and clarity of children's voices linking the plea for help to the residential school survivors and the survivors of wars alike. 

Redbird's recitation of his poem, Stolen Child, reinforced the total disconnect between the aspiration of the majority population to protect "freedom" and the simultaneous denial of freedom to the families of soldiers who fought for that cause.

At this point, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir returned with a virtual performance, How They So Softly Rest by Healey Willan, and a live concert taping of In paradisum by Fauré, with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  The Fauré was accompanied by visuals of reflections on the meaning of Remembrance Day from members of the choir.  These two works, sharing a meditative air, thus became a pair of reminders of a belief in ultimate goodness and unity of all humanity.  

Both were performed with the beautiful legato and security of harmony for which this choir is renowned.

The programme then ended with a short, powerful video collage created by Brian Solomon, accompanied again by Balfour's Anthem For a Doomed Youth.  The images Solomon assembled together were both startling and disturbing, reminding the viewer forcefully of the way that wartime devastation of land, plant life, animal life, and innocent human life too, are all too easily lumped together and waved aside to focus on the bigger question of military "victory."

This remarkable Remembrance Day virtual concert was by turns disturbing, exciting, dramatic, meditative, saddening, and uplifting -- quite an emotional journey for a 1-hour event.

When it comes to creating virtual events designed for online viewing, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and its gifted members and leaders have become the absolute masters! 

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