Song of Flanders will be performed March 22nd and March 23rd by the Sooke Chamber Players and soprano Nancy Washeim, and with the Sooke Philharmonic Chorus and Tashi Meisami Farivar (mezzo soprano), Josh Lovell (tenor) and Nick Allen (bass), conducted by Wade Noble.
This will be the Canadian premiere of Straughan’s work.
The genesis of Song of Flanders, Brent tells us, went something like this:
“Many years ago I was extremely upset by a national cenotaph ceremony, which featured a children’s choir singing a ghastly little something as a setting for John McCrae’s famous poem. I intensely loathed what I heard. I stomped off and listened to eight other settings. I hated them all — unimaginative, anti-musical, malodorous tripe.”
Brent had an uncle in Victoria who lied about his age at 17 to become a
stretcher bearer at Vimy, and in WWII another uncle had three tanks shot out from under him in North Africa. Yet another uncle was the first allied soldier to land at Sicily, and was promptly grenaded for his pains. His sergeant rappelled
up a cliff with the wounded man over his shoulder, and left him in a cave for the medics. This uncle, Uncle Max died, just as Brent was finishing Song of Flanders.
Brent felt the McCrae poem, which every school child has declaimed, is part of our Canadian heritage.
“It was nurtured at the rivers of Canadian sensibility. It was forged in the crucible of a great war. The music that matches it must come from here. No one else can do this for us, it’s ours. There absolutely has to be music that matches the archetypical power and imagery of this poem. I decided to try my hand.”
Driving in to work in Ontario in an unheated truck in midwinter at three in the morning, the first crucial theme came to him and he sang it all the way into work, where he wrote it down on some videotape labels.
Brent has been composing all his life. Day jobs have included the likes of TV news cameraman and film editor, helicopter pilot, farmer.
He remembers his mother patiently enduring his early compositions, as he banged on pots and pans in the kitchen. He remembers sitting at the piano in little blue rompers, staring at the bubble lights on the Christmas tree. He says, “Suddenly it came to me, that I didn’t need the written page to tell me how to put sounds together! Epiphany! I could make up the order of sounds myself! I could decide what the left hand and right hand played together! Whole new worlds of thought arrayed themselves brightly before me! I was free from that moment.”
He enjoys playing along with his violin parts as much as he can — or cello parts, or piano parts, or singing along, if no one is near. Composition is a solitary activity, and this allows him to hear what he is doing. As he plays the part he can imagine where it could go. He says, “I find it very easy to image the sound of a particular singer in my head and I work with an astonishingly precise version of their voice in my mind, as I go. I have no idea why I can do that, but I can.”
The Sooke Philharmonic community knows Brent well. He sits in the front desk of the second violins, and in the absence of an oboe can provide musicians with a good A in a full, operatic voice.
He is fully enjoying the production process. “I know the musicians and singers very well; I have played faithfully alongside them for twelve years. Each is putting something extra into the live performance, that cannot be captured on a recording. There is no drama like the ultimate risk of live recording and the subtle ways Norman shapes string expression continue to amaze us all. I am very, very grateful for this realization.
“From the first rehearsal, when I heard Mary Jane Watson and someone else
singing my themes while putting away their cellos, a steady stream of compliments and encouragement have come in to me from the orchestra, choir and soloists.”
In May, Straughan flies to Texas, to hear the Fort Worth Opera play a segment of his opera Precari, about interfaith love in the Sarajevo conflict. Eight modern operas from around the world were chosen for this show. One or two of the operas will be produced on the Fort Worth company mainstage.
The following anecdote told by Brent is not relevant to this column except that it’s a great story, and reminds us how tough and resourceful people were, in the days before Medivacs and SUV’s.
“Once in Mayerthorpe my father went out to a farmhouse in a winter storm to
deliver a baby. The railway gave him a handcar, and he propelled himself along the track, hopped off at the right farmhouse with his medical bag, waded through the snow drifts, climbed the barbed wire fence and made it to the farmhouse. He delivered the baby, then the woman’s womb prolapsed. A woman, I remember him telling me, “can bleed to death in seven minutes.” No fancy saline drips transfusions or bloody anything. He made a saline solution in a milk bucket, found some sort of farm hose and kept her womb bathed in saline after replacing it, and she made it!”
Hear Song of Flanders at the Sooke Baptist Church on Saturday, March 22 at 7:30 pm, or the New St. Mary’s Church in Metchosin on Sunday, March 23 in the afternoon at 2:30 pm.
Check the Song of Flanders website, http://songofflanders.com/
Read about Brent in the Times Colonist,