This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.
Leonard Bernstein’s words in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy have been passed around social media this week in response to the Boston Marathon bombing. That art can be used to explore the dark side of humanity is nothing new, but what Bernstein expressed so eloquently in 1963 is the inner peace that comes from finding the strength, through the beauty of music, to find meaning and comfort amidst the darkness.
For Patrick Walders, director of choral activities at San Diego State University, this spring has been rife with opportunities to explore grief and loss through song.
Five months after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., Walders conducted 175 of Connecticut’s finest high school singers in paying choral tribute to the victims at the Connecticut Music Educators Association All-State festival. The piece, commissioned by the CMEA from composer Jocelyn Hagen for the organization’s 80th anniversary, received a standing ovation from the 3,000 audience members.
The following weekend, Walders was at Pepperdine University for a joint performance of another work that explores violence and loss, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Dona Nobis Pacem.” The SDSU Chamber Singers and choirs from Pepperdine University and Malibu High School performed the 40-minute choral-orchestral masterwork, which was commissioned by the Huddersfield Choral Society for its 100th anniversary in 1936. The performance also featured speeches by veterans, describing their experiences being shot down over France, seven years imprisonment in a Vietnamese POW camp and losing a comrade to an IED in Afghanistan.
“Dona Nobis Pacem” was inspired by Vaughan Williams’s harrowing experiences on the front lines of World War I and features three poems by Walt Whitman, another artist who was forever changed by seeing war casualties first-hand.
Vaughan Williams used Whitman’s poems to create a narrative, starting with a call to arms (“Beat! Beat! Drums!”), then identifying with a fallen enemy (“Reconciliation”) and ultimately paying homage to the soldiers’ sacrifice (“Dirge for Two Veterans”). The latter movements use text from the Bible, the Catholic mass and British statesman John Bright’s memorable but ultimately fruitless speech opposing British involvement in the Crimean War. Vaughan Williams’s work may not have prevented World War II, but it remains an eloquent statement of support for those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and yearning for the day when such a sacrifice is not needed.
This Saturday, Walders conducts the final performance of “Dona Nobis Pacem” at College Avenue Baptist Church, featuring a chorus of200 singers, composed of his SDSU Chamber Choir, the Pepperdine University Chamber Singers and the San Diego Master Chorale (full disclosure: I’m a volunteer singer with the San Diego Master Chorale) and accompanied the SDSU Symphony Orchestra. Though Walders has been responsible for preparing other choirs to perform “Dona Nobis Pacem” with the National Philharmonic and at the University of Maryland, this is his first time leading a performance — a challenge he relishes.
“Digging into the instrumental part is similar to preparing the chorus,” he said. “It’s exciting and gratifying to have a say in every single note in the piece.”
Due to SDSU’s ongoing search for a new orchestra conductor, Walders has also been able to work on the piece with the SDSU Symphony Orchestra for the past six weeks. “Normally, if a choir conductor has the opportunity to conduct an orchestra, he only gets to work with them at the eleventh hour,” he said. “I’m able to get a greater depth of subtlety and nuance this way.”
I asked Walders if he had time to sleep between his three guest conducting engagements on the East Coast since February, orchestral and choral preparation, traveling with his SDSU singers and teaching classes.
“Not this semester,” he said, laughing. “I’ll start sleeping after May 15.”
On Monday evening, Walders led the first rehearsal for orchestra, combined choirs and the soprano and baritone soloists for Saturday. Though everybody was still reeling from the news out of Boston, the musicians displayed remarkable unity of interpretation, which is a testament to how well the ensembles had been prepared, as well as the universality of the piece, which is filled with what Walders called “raw human connective tissue.”
For example, in the penultimate movement, Vaughan Williams chose verses from Book of Jeremiah that describe a war-torn nation whose weary, traumatized citizens cry out that the violence and destruction has not spared them and beg for relief. The underlying question of how such things can happen, even to the innocent, of course, has no single answer.
“I want this piece to elicit an emotional response, perhaps one that people have not yet been able to articulate,” said Walders. “Sure enough, the bells in the town will be tolling, and there will be peace, but now it’s difficult.”
The standing ovations Walders and his choirs received from audiences in Connecticut and Malibu speak to the power of music not only to heal but also to find purpose and move forward.
Do not judge a song by its duration,
Not by the number of its notes.
Judge it by the richness of its contents.
Sometimes those unfinished are the most poignant.
Judge it by the way it touches and lifts the soul.
Sometimes those unfinished are the most beautiful.
And when something has enriched your life,
And when its melody lingers on in your heart,
Is it unfinished? Or is it endless?
— text from Jocelyn Hagen’s “Endless,” author unknown
Patrick Walders conducts the SDSU Chamber Choir, the SDSU Symphony Orchestra, the Pepperdine University Chamber Singers and the San Diego Master Chorale on Saturday, April 20.