Rembrandt Chamber Musicians’ unfocused Armistice program misses the historical mark

Sun Nov 11, 2018 at 2:00 pm

By Tim Sawyier

New York troops in Corbie, France, celebrate the signing of the Armistice Treaty, Nov. 11, 1918. (AP Photo)

Today—November 11, 2018—is the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, when the armed hostilities of World War I ceased. Known as the Great War before its even bloodier sequel led to its designation as the “First” World War, the conflict was one of the largest wars in history, seeing approximately 70 million people mobilized, 20 million killed, and another 21 million wounded. 

Saturday night at St. James Cathedral the Rembrandt Chamber Musicians presented “War and the Human Heart: Songs of Battle, Loss, and Love,” a multimedia concert to mark the centenary of the Armistice. While there were impactful musical contributions, the event as a whole was uneven, with equally bewildering elements.

The instrumental contingent Saturday night was a 30-member wind ensemble plus keyboards and percussion, with Rembrandt founders Sandra and Robert Morgan in the principal flute and oboe chairs, respectively. This ensemble was filled out with members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and area freelancers, though the instrumentalists were not listed in the program, and the Morgans were the only current Rembrandt players on hand. They were joined by the Valparaiso University Chorale and Bach Choir (members also uncredited), and all led by Craig Jessop, former director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Longtime WFMT Morning Show host Carl Grapentine provided narration throughout the evening.

The variegated musical program was the most successful aspect of the evening, which provided a rare opportunity to hear repertoire for chorus and wind ensemble not usually encountered in a concert setting. From their opening with Beethoven’s Krieger Chor: Wir Bauen und Sterben to closing with Holst’s Turn Back O Man (Op. 36a), the Valparaiso singers acquitted themselves as a solid, disciplined ensemble, with admirable diction, timbre, and intonation. Jessop was an assured leader, always attentive to balance and longer vocal lines, his years of experience with the storied Utah ensemble clearly a benefit.

The wind consort was similarly impressive. Their rendition of Richard Strauss’s Feierlicher Einzug der Ritter des Johannitenordens (1909) had a glowing sonority, and the playing in Schumann’s Beim Abshied zu Singen, Op. 84 toward the end of the night was just as stylish, with exquisite blend and inflection. Jessop was just as clear and fluent leading his wind-playing colleagues as the young vocalists.

Three vocal soloists made game contributions. Soprano Anne Marie Bice sang Anna Marly’s Chant des Partisans of 1940 with stalwart Gallic defiance, and tenor Stephen Noon projected the playful, flirtatious qualities of Camille Robert’s Quand Mandelon of 1914. The evening’s most substantial work was Bohuslav Martinů’s Polní Mše (“Soldier’s Mass”), which showcased baritone Daniel Eifert. Eifert’s sonorous instrument was powerful yet flexible across ranges and dramatically in sync with the profound isolation of the rarely heard work’s text (by poet Jirí Mucha).

The evening was punctuated with narration delivered by Chicago favorite Carl Grapentine. Those who miss his voice on their morning commutes would have found his sonorous delivery familiar and welcome, but the content of his contributions came off as superficial. He related in his initial statement that it was hoped the concert could provide an experience of “what war was really like”— but how could a concert be expected to do any such thing? The idea would seem to be that civilians do not know what war is really like, and should bear that in mind when honoring veterans. His later commentary about what it’s like “when your country is attacked,” how people came to the concert “for many individual reasons,” and about friendship among men at arms felt platitudinous (if no doubt true), though it was not indicated who had actually produced the spoken text.

Various short readings were also interspersed throughout the concert but lacked any meaningful cohesion. These were delivered by readers sitting in the front pews, who would stand and turn around to speak their lines—statements about war from a variety of sources, spanning literally centuries, that added little other than length to the evening. At another point a recording of FDR’s 1941 “Four Freedoms” address to Congress played over the speakers. Nothing but the most general theme of war united these disparate elements.

The video element was also superfluous, at times bizarre. As a case in point, the first half ended with Holst’s A Dirge for Two Veterans of 1914. The Whitman poem Holst sets makes numerous references to the moon shining on a double grave, and during the performance an image of the moon was projected on two large screens flanking the performers, the literal visual completely missing the emotional center of the work and detracting from its impact.

The program also featured Gardner Read’s dark-hued The Reveille, Op. 89a, and during this a news brief about enlistment during WWII following Japanese bombing was projected. The Reveille was written in 1962, sets a Civil War-era poem, and speaks well enough for itself without any ahistorical visual accompaniment. It was also hard to make heads or tails of a video produced for the concert called “Homecoming,” a Blair Witch-esque short featuring anxious, lost-looking people wandering around wordlessly meeting and parting.

Despite the good intentions, the hodgepodge nature of the entire program gave the evening the feel of pastiche. Anytime is a good time to honor veterans, but Armistice Day celebrates a very specific historical moment, one that has become somewhat obscured by the ensuing horrors that befell Europe a quarter-century later. (Indeed, much of the concert featured works from or relating to that later conflict.) Taking such a generalized approach to a celebrating a particular event made the moment itself irrelevant. The whole show would have made a very compelling celebration for a standard Veterans’ Day or Memorial Day, but did not do justice to the centenary of the Armistice.

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