A one-time only commemoration five years in the making featuring the Rembrandt Chamber Players – how could I resist attending? This moving performance honored the experience of war for every veteran, past or present. Featuring the Rembrandt Chamber Musicians, the Valparaiso University Chorale, the Valparaiso University Bach Choir, and conductor Craig Jessop (former director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) for a thought-provoking journey into the veteran experience from many perspectives. This performance was thoughtful and thought provoking, powerful, moving and remarkable. It seemlessly integrated music by Beethoven, Strauss, Holst, Schumann, readings, videos, projections and super script along with the orchestra, choruses, and soloists.
Dr. Charles Rearick, Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, began the evening with a pre-concert talk on “France in the Great War: The Divide between Home Front and Front Line — and How a Song Bridged the Gap.” He was a captivating speaker and his topic was unique and engaging. He was looking at the history of France and the First and Second World Wars through the lens of a song and its popularity. Quand Madelon became a “hit song” during World War I in France and had several versions even moving into World War II. The history of this popular song, included the collective emotions of the troops and the culture of France at that time. Dr. Rearick is one of only a few experts in the popular music of WWI. He also pointed out that France sustained more losses than other countries.
The featured guests included Craig Jessop (former Director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), conductor; Carl Grapentine (WFMT Morning Program), narrator; Christopher Cock (Director of Choral and Vocal Activities at Valparaiso University), tenor; Anne Marie Bice, soprano; Daniel Eifert, baritone; Steven Ovitsky (Executive Director, Santa Fe Chamber Music.
The evening was filled with meaningful, moving, compelling and varied presentations that included orchestral music, vocal soloists, readings of stories and poetry, projections of appropriate photos and more. Jeff Gettleman who was the organizer of the event spent the last five years preparing for this moment, though he began thinking about it many years before. As the evening ended, many shook their heads in wonder, impressed by the attention to detail and the impact of the experience.
Carl Grapentine’s role as narrator was critical. I can’t imagine anyone else who voice and presentation could have added so much to the presentations that followed his impactful words. The Valparaiso University Chorale entered with drama, carrying electric candles. The words of the pieces they sang were accompanied by super script, which enhanced the listening experience.
The role of the veteran and war were explored from many perspectives. The romanticized soldier heading to war, the letters to family describing terrible conditions or missing home, the horrors. A powerful thought was that we are here because the veterans who lost their lives for us are not. The notion that war is in the human heart and needs to be purged was also presented. During intermission I heard several conversations where people were saying, “I didn’t know what to expect”. As people filed out of the magnificent church, words could be heard about the careful attention to detail and what a moving and meaningful experience this had been.
This was such a unique and impactful experience that I think it is only fair to share a note from Jeff Gettleman which is below.
More about the Rembrandt Chamber Players
Photo credit: Ben Bowen / MERLO MEDIA
From Jeff Gettleman-
Background to the War and the Human HeartConcert Event at St. James Cathedral
Who I am and why am I the sponsor of this concert
I am an Army veteran, having served from 1968-1971 at Ft Sheridan, Illinois and Long Binh, Vietnam. I was a musician in Vietnam, a clarinetist with the 266thArmy Band. Even though it was not risk-free, I was still lucky in what I did and where I was. A lot of other folks were not as lucky, and I wanted to do something to honor them.
Also, there is quite a bit of wonderful music written for voices and wind instruments that is not performed very often, and because I knew audiences would enjoy it, I wanted to get it performed. Christopher Cock and Jeff Doebler agreed, which resulted in this concert.
Other miscellaneous personal background: my day job is still being an attorney (with Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago), but I am heading toward retirement at the end of this year. But I also spent many years in marketing and advertising, on both the client and the agency side. I also was executive director of the Elgin, Illinois Symphony Orchestra and marketing and PR director for the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. I still am active as a clarinetist—I gave a recital last fall, and perform in some ensembles associated with Valparaiso University. I have done a fair amount of arranging and composing for wind ensembles.
What we are trying to do with this concert
The concert program and presentation operate on several different levels:
- In connection with the 100thAnniversary of Armistice Day, it is meant to honor veterans, but in a particular way. Due to the institution of an all-volunteer armed services many years ago, a dwindling percentage of US families have any direct contact with the military. This phenomenon has been called the “civilian-military divide” and has been discussed extensively. When people thank me for my service, most don’t understand what my service really was. So one object of the program is to help the audience understand what a veteran has really experienced—and of course music communicates on a different (emotional) level, different from reading a book or article.
- War seems always to be with us, so the concert will give the audience the opportunity to contemplate war: for instance, one of the musical themes is, what if your country is attacked? You don’t give up, but you are forced to fight back to preserve or obtain your freedom. Is war effective as a dispute-resolution mechanism? The composers and librettists—several of whom were veterans themselves–portray war in different ways. The music is intended to be thought-provoking. The title of the concert was derived from the surprisingly many disparate persons who have juxtaposed “war and the human heart” in their writings. These range from 1731: “The human heart is the starting point of all matters pertaining to war.” (Marechal Maurice, Comte de Saxe, Mes Reveries) to 1891: “By the very law of our nature, it thus appears, the well-spring of war is in the human heart” (Rear Admiral S. B. Luce, The Benefits of War); to 2006: “[W]ar and peace start in the human heart” (Pema Chödrön, Practicing Peace In Times of War). In other words, “war is us” and it is ultimately our responsibility to think about it as servicemembers are sent overseas to fight for us.
- The musical program contains music from many countries, illustrating that war is universal and affects people all over the world.
How the presentation of the concert is designed achieve the objectives above
To achieve the above purposes, the concert presentation has been designed to engage the audience to a greater extent perhaps than at a typical concert, so several techniques will be used to “break the proscenium” or the “fourth wall”:
- The first song will be sung by the chorus in the back of the Cathedral, rather than from the stage;
- The chorus will process in through the audience;
- Although none of the pieces is “staged,” at times the chorus will use gestures or movements to emphasize certain things in the music;
- There will be “readers” stationed in the audience who will read quotations and poems at relevant times;
- There will be a narrator (Carl Grapentine); and
- There will be multimedia images, video and audio clips, and quotations displayed on a screen during the performance.
- We will be using English supertitles, so the audience clearly understands the words of the songs.
Associated events occurring during “Concert Week” in Chicago
The Rembrandt Chamber Musicians, along with the Valparaiso University Music Department, is also sponsoring special events in Chicago. As a service to the community, two visiting scholars will be giving talks: Dr. Charles Rearick of the University of Massachusetts Amherst will visit schools in the Chicago area to speak about the popular music of France during WWI; Dr. Rearick will also give a pre-concert talk on November 10 about the song Quand Madelon, the “hit song” of France during WWI (which is on the concert program). Dr. Keith Kinder of McMaster University in Toronto is the foremost expert on music for wind instruments and voices (the genre of music featured on the concert). Dr. Kinder will be giving talks at Chicago colleges, and also will give a talk for local music educators in the north suburbs on the morning of Nov. 10.
The concert has been endorsed as an official event of the Illinois World War I Centennial Commission.
From a musical perspective, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear music most of which has never been performed in Chicago and may never be again. It is also designed to be an engaging, entertaining and moving experience for the audience.