Just up the freeway from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a new piece of music is premiering Tuesday: a mammoth choral and symphonic meditation on the human results of war.
For composer Gregory Youtz, a music professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland, the fact that “Drum Taps: Nine Poems on Themes of War” will see its first performance in a military town is mostly coincidence. But it’s not coincidence for the university, whose School of Arts and Communication has created a series on compassion, of which “Drum Taps” is the grand finale.
“This is the kind of project that’s kept me at PLU for 28 years,” Youtz said. “We do stuff like this – really big stuff.”
“Drum Taps” is, indeed, big stuff. As the orchestra and four vocal soloists rehearsed earlier this week, the sheer scope of the one-hour composition shone through every movement: challenging emotions, difficult and dramatic music, breathtaking words.
Like a secular oratorio, “Drum Taps” is constructed in nine sections that alternate between choir and soloists and set a different text about war or conflict, taken from a variety of historical sources. Four of the poems, including the menacing opening, are from the “Drum Taps” by Walt Whitman, the piece’s namesake written during the Civil War. Others come from eighth century China, 18th century Vietnam, 16th century France and medieval Arabia. It with the Agnus Dei, the ancient Christian prayer for peace.
That each poem has associations with places where the United States has had military action is no coincidence, Youtz said. Yet “Drum Taps” wasn’t conceived for PLU: Youtz wrote three of the sections in 2003 for soprano Janeanne Houston, one of Tuesday’s vocalists, “while we were raining bombs on Iraq.” Wanting to flesh the work out, he added the rest three years later after discovering Whitman’s poetry and other poems.
“The SOAC compassion series was just the catalyst for this performance,” Youtz said of the program that also includes Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor played by PLU professor Oksana Ezhokina.
“Drum Taps” fits perfectly into the theme of compassion. After an opening movement based on Whitman’s “Beat! Beat! Drums,” with insistent snare, thunderous timpani and percussive choir, the piece moves from the excited preparation for war into its grim reality with the Vietnamese “Ode of the War Wife” by Doan Thi Diem. Over quiet, rippling strings, the soprano sings mournfully of the departure of her loved one to war and death. It’s followed by “Ode of the War Dragons” by DuFu, an eighth century Chinese poet, whose devastatingly bleak picture of a country torn by war is sung by baritone Barry Johnson and tenor Stephen Rumph. Another Whitman poem is followed by an eighth century Arabic lament on the loss of love, sung by alto Melissa Plagemann in a melody that dips down into dissonance from open cello fifths. More Whitman follows, including “The Wound Dresser,” where an old man mourns that he cannot offer his own life in place of the dying young soldier he is tending. Then a wild, almost atonal setting of a French letter written from a war field is followed by the Agnus Dei, ending in an ambiguous peace.
“He’s done such a great job of marrying the music to the text,” said PLU conductor Jeffrey Bell-Hanson. “There’s a hanging, unresolved quality that requires a lot of balance.”
With all the drama and tone-painting of a great film score and all the accessible-yet-challenging tonality found in Youtz’s other work (his Percussion Concerto was premiered by the Tacoma Symphony last year), this is definitely not an easy piece for a student orchestra. But Bell-Hanson sees no reason why it couldn’t be tackled by any other orchestra in the country – and hopes it will.
“The chance to explore these issues is just priceless, especially considering the current situation with our military community,” he said. “This music is a great catalyst for this kind of conversation.”
Conversation is exactly what will come before the “Drum Taps” premiere next week. One hour before the concert, a panel that includes Youtz and PLU Veteran Corps representative Michael Farnem will lead a public discussion that explores military themes of the work.
“Initially, Michael was nervous about the piece – he thought it wasn’t representative of today’s soldiers, even denigrating,” Youtz said. “But I told him that it’s not about the modern military. It’s about human dalliance with war through the centuries and the effect that has on society.”
“Drum Taps” paints a decidedly black picture of war, the texts combining with the notes to offer images of cruelty, loneliness, suffering and widespread death. But not everyone feels this way. Youtz is delighted the piece offers Tacomans the chance to talk around the issue from all sides.
“Veterans like Michael have been there, can tell stories about being shot at. He has a colder, clearer view. And that’s the inherent tension. Warriors have pride in what they do and rightly so, since we expect them to do it. But that pride creates problems for society. I’d never claim that there’s an easy answer for that,” Youtz said.
What: Gregory Youtz’s “Drum Taps: Nine Poems on Themes of War”
Who: Pacific Lutheran University choirs and orchestra, with soloists Janeanne Houston, Melissa Plagemann, Stephen Rumph and Barry Johnson
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday (7 p.m. pre-concert panel on war themes)
Where: Lagerquist Hall at Pacific Lutheran University, corner of Wheeler Street S. and Eight Avenue Court S. (panel discussion in Music Building Room 334)
Tickets: $8 adults, $5 seniors, $3 PLU community, free for ages 18 and younger
Information: email@example.com 253-597-8568 blog.thenewstribune.com/arts