Solemn Memorial Concert Reflects Afghanistan War

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The Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performed Jeffrey Ryan’s ‘Afghanistan: Requiem
for a Generation.’ in Roy Thomson Hall. (Concert photos by Jag Gundu, courtesy TSO)

By Colin Eatock

TORONTO – Since the end of World War I, Remembrance Day (Canada’s version of Veterans Day) has been a significant occasion for Canadians. Between 1914 and 1918, the Dominion of Canada lost over 60,000 soldiers in the “War to End All Wars.” Nowadays, there are memorial observances and events across the country, every November 11.

This year, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra put together a Remembrance Day program, with performances at Roy Thomson Hall on November 9 and 11, under the baton of guest conductor Tania Miller. The performance I attended (November 11) was a suitably solemn occasion, with the TSO’s players all wearing red poppy pins. As well, the Canadian armed forces provided a bugler, two readers, and four bagpipers. All acquitted themselves admirably.

Jeffrey Ryan wrote an ambitious requiem for large forces.
(Chick Rice)

Indeed, so solemn-of-purpose and ceremonial in form was this event that it almost seemed to lie outside the purview of music criticism – just as it would be strange and inappropriate to review a religious ceremony.

Almost.

There was one work on the program that demands to be written about: Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation, by Canadian composer Jeffrey Ryan, with a libretto by Canadian poet Suzanne Steele. This nine-movement requiem is an elaborate and ambitious piece, scored for large orchestra, chorus, children’s chorus, and four vocal soloists. It was premiered by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra in 2012, and it has also been performed by the Vancouver Symphony. On this occasion, it filled the entire second half of the TSO’s program.

War poet Suzanne Steele was in Afghanistan in the thick of the conflict. (warpoet.ca)

I must admit that I approached the piece with some trepidation, fearing it would either drip with sentimentality or (worse) would offer some kind of post-modern critique of war. But Afghanistan does neither; rather, it presents the war in Afghanistan – to which Canada contributed 40,000 soldiers between 2001 and 2014 – in an immediate, personal, and visceral way. Steele was there, in the thick of the conflict, as Canada’s first official “war poet.” Her poetry, derived from what she saw and heard, captures the chaos and pain of battle firsthand, in short, jagged lines such as “fatigue, despair, ricochet, near miss, putrid, poison, lousy air.” Wisely, the TSO projected the text as supertitles on two large screens, so not a word was lost on the audience.

Guest conductor Tania Miller led the solemn Remembrance Day program.

Faced with the challenge of working these texts into a coherent, large-scale musical composition, Ryan succeeded brilliantly. To be sure, he was the right man for the job: as the Vancouver Symphony’s composer-in-residence from 2002-07, Ryan developed a sure-handed ability to write effectively for a large orchestra. In Afghanistan, he imaginatively placed Steele’s poetry within the framework of a requiem mass, juxtaposing snippets of liturgical Latin with Steele’s English, French, and Pashto texts. (In this way, Afghanistan bears some resemblance to Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem.)

Ryan created a vivid score, making imaginative use of the musical forces at his disposal. He’s not shy about big, dramatic tutti passages – but there are also some more intimate moments, such as the opening of the “Kyrie” movement, with four solo cellos. In its harmonic language, Afghanistan is fundamentally tonal, sometimes with slow-moving, momentous chords on the bottom of the orchestral texture juxtaposed against edgy dissonance above. A full hour in duration, Afghanistan has no longueurs or weak passages; it’s a compelling piece, unfailingly effective throughout.

Stellar forces: Measha Brueggergosman, from left, Allyson McHardy, Tania Miller, Colin Ainsworth, Brett Polegato.

The vocal soloists at the front of the stage were four of the best singers Canada currently has to offer. Soprano Measha Brueggergosman was the first to rise, successfully negotiating some highly ornate passages. Mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy shone in some lush, low passages. And the two men – tenor Colin Ainsworth and baritone Brett Polegato – sang (and also spoke) with dramatic urgency. Much credit for the success of the performance is of course due to Miller, who drew the large musical forces at her disposal into a unified whole.

Concertmaster Jonathan Crow performed ‘The Lark Ascending’ from the balcony.

The first half of the program was entirely suitable to Remembrance Day. The Lento movement from Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 2 (“A London Symphony”) was nicely shaped. So too was Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, featuring violin soloist (and TSO concertmaster) Jonathan Crow. However, the decision to place Crow in a balcony, away from the stage, did little to enhance the intimacy of this piece.

There was also a “sesquie” to open the program, one of 40 short fanfares that the TSO has commissioned from Canadian composers to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Like most sesquies I’ve heard this year, this one – Fallen, by Jordan Pal – has too many ideas crammed into too few minutes.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications. He also teaches at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.

Date posted: November 12, 2017

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  1. I am the librettist, the war poet, and the one who conceptualised the war requiem performed by the TSO last week and so nicely reviewed by Colin Eatock. After returning from my two year stint with the army, in 2010 I met with the late producer, Michael Green, who asked me what I wanted to do with all my war material. I told him I wanted to write a war requiem for a post-religious generation. Within 24 hours the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra were on side, and artistic director Heather Slater and I chose the composer Jeff Ryan to help bring my vision to fruition. I chose the form and the Latin texts, and advised the composer on the deployment of voices – e.g. asked that the main female role of lover/wife be a mezzo etc. and suggested some musical motifs and timbres. As a trained musician (BMus in voice from UBC), I knew what I was doing, and Jeff responded fantastically.

    I am writing because Eatock’s review, which is lovely, seems to exclude much of my intellectual and artistic contributions to the project, relegating me solely to the subordinate role of librettist. While I advised Jeff on some musical ideas, it should also be noted that Jeff advised me on some of the textual arrangements when we were shaping the work.
    In no way does this letter take away from the incredible job that Jeff Ryan did of this work. We are both immensely proud of it and we both feel to be equal partners in this magnificent project. Too often the requiem is referred to as the Ryan requiem – a pro forma convention in the classical world. I believe this portrays my role as passive and secondary in its creation. It is not. It is the Ryan/Steele requiem or the Steele/Ryan requiem. The composer did not go to a book and cherry pick poems the way Britten did with Wilfred Owen’s. This was/is an active partnership between a composer and a poet/musician who are both very much alive, one that has resulted in what we believe is an enduring work for all nations who experience war.

     — Reply