What Can Orchestral Music Say About War? Ask the Oregon Symphony

Audio: Carlos Kalmar on the Oregon Symphony

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The concept behind the Oregon Symphony’s concert Thursday night at the Spring for Music festival may seem ripped from the headlines. With the U.S. engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the global response to terrorism fresh in people's minds, a program of war-themed works couldn’t be timelier. But Carlos Kalmar, Oregon’s music director, insists that current events played no part in the programming.

“I must say very clearly that we did not go towards that idea because we, as a human race, are in a time of war now,” said the Uruguay-born Kalmar. “As a matter of fact, unfortunately, the human race is always at war somewhere with someone.”

The Carnegie Hall program traces a wartime journey, starting with Ives' The Unanswered Question, proceeding to John Adams’ The Wound Dresser (with baritone Sanford Sylvan), then Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, and finally, Vaughan Williams’s turbulent Symphony No. 4.

“Yes, the music is about war but not every piece on the program was written specifically because of war,” Kalmar notes, adding that the Ives helps set up a philosophical point: "You could understand it as ‘why on earth are we doing what we’re doing to mankind?’ Or ‘why do people fight?’ The good thing about the Ives is it can be used in so many different contexts.”

At the heart of the program is the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4, composed in the gathering gloom of Europe in 1934. “We can debate long and hard whether that has anything to do with war,” said Kalmar. Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, written in 1940, was ostensibly a requiem memorial to his parents. But it was also a reaction to the developing menace of the war from a dedicated pacifist.

Adams’s The Wound-Dresser, a setting of Walt Whitman's poem, describes the poet's personal horror treating wounded soldiers just off the battlefield during the Civil War. It’s also the only piece written specifically about war itself.

After two years of planning and extensive fundraising efforts -- covering a $300,000 cost, according to The Oregonian -- the Oregon Symphony’s visit to Carnegie Hall marks the longest distance traveled by any Spring for Music orchestra. Kalmar believes that the pacing of the concert will be important, and that, given the grim subject matter, audiences shouldn’t come expecting a happy ending.

“There is redemption in our concert, but not at the end,” said Kalmar. “I think that is an important point. I don’t think that anybody who goes to this concert will come out and think everything is alright. I think the pacing is good because nothing is alright. If we humans have to live with war, that is pretty much what the message should be."


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Comments [3]

Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

Besides those mentioned earlier, there is Prokofieff's scoring of "Alexander Nevsky" of the battle on the ice between the valiant Russian defenders and the Teutonic invaders, Frank Loesser's "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition", 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" "This is the Army, Mr. Jones" , and the "Star Spangled Banner" and hiundreds more of war-related thematic materials in symphonies, oratorios, and songs. From the beginning of time brute force has functioned as the determinant of who owns what and who has "say."

May. 12 2011 05:43 PM
Sid from Brooklyn

Who programs Vaughan Williams these days? Especially the Fourth.
Good choice by Maestro Kalmar.

May. 12 2011 01:01 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

What did the sound track from the Victory at Sea series say to us?

What does the 1812 Overture say to us?

Battle Hymn of the Republic?

We appreciate these musical works for what they are, and forget why they were written or what they commemorate.

When we re-connect them to the events that caused them to be written, they take on a different, and often somber, meaning.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Muisc was meant to draw out the emotions of the listener and perhaps invoke thought and reflection.

May. 12 2011 09:57 AM

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