To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Veteran’s Day, QCSO will perform WVIK/QCSO Signature Series I: War Reflections in the historic Heritage Hall at the Rock Island Arsenal on Saturday, Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m., covering two colorful and textural pieces inspired by the human experience during war.
Going to War for Love
War itself is filled with a full gamut of emotions: fear, anticipation, comradery, and even love. The latter is explored in the program’s first piece, detailing an Italian-American’s journey into WWI in the name of love.
Written by QCSO Executive Director Brian Baxter, Ho sentito di una terra distante is a song cycle based on the diary of an Italian-American soldier, Bernardino Bernardini, using lyrics from Marcella Bernard’s imaginary opera “His Military Life” to accompany the novel “Pro Patria.”
Lasting about 15 minutes, the piece combines French horn, trombone, violin, cello, and piano with soprano and baritone vocals. It’s sweeping in sound and emotion, traveling between moments of hope and despair.
“It’s about Bernardino’s experience in WWI,” Baxter said. “Originally from Italy, he had become a citizen in the United States. Yet he had this idea that he was going to leave the country and return to Italy to fight in WWI.”
But it wasn’t a desire to defend his motherland that drove him to enlist. Bernardino was in love, and he saw the war as his opportunity to reunite and marry the woman of his dreams.
“He thought he would fight in the war for a few months, maybe a year, and then marry this woman he’d always wanted to marry and live happily ever after,” Baxter said. “Of course, war doesn’t work that way.”
Bernardino does reunite with his darling Elisa, but only temporarily. He is eventually captured by the Austrians and, when finally free, returns to the United States alone.
Sharing Bernardino’s Story
It’s in the novel “Pro Patria” that Marcella Bernard, Bernardino’s niece, recounts her uncle’s journey. A companion to the novel, Baxter was commissioned by the International Chamber Artists to work with Bernard to produce a piece reflecting both the love and conflict within Bernardino’s story.
“Attached to each chapter, Marcella created a song from an opera. This is called an aria,” Baxter explained. “There’s this imaginary opera that shadows the whole book. I pulled out six of the aria songs that I felt captured this doomed romance. The piece is essentially a bunch of love songs going back and forth between the two characters.”
The piece premiered in June 2018 in Chicago but will be played for just the second time by QCSO.
“We get to see Brian with a different hat on,” said Naha Greenhotlz, QCSO Principal Violinist and Signature Series Artistic Director. “This will be my first time working with Brian in that capacity. Not only to learn and perform his music but as a collaborator. And it’s always a treat to have access to the living composer during the preparation and rehearsal process.”
Baxter, too, feels excitement in QCSO performing his piece.
“I am honored that it’s being programmed,” he said. “It’s a perfect fit for this concert, and I’m really thrilled to hear our musicians performing it.”
An All-Consuming War
The final piece is Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. A French composer, Messiaen wrote the piece in 1941 while a prisoner of war in German captivity.
“Messiaen’s Quarter for the End of Time is an absolute masterpiece,” Greenholtz said. “It has a really incredible emotional range. It’s not the easiest piece to perform because there’s so much Messiaen plays with in terms of time, but it’s really an unforgettable experience.”
Its immense emotional range is likely a result of the conditions under which the piece was written. Not only did Messiaen complete the piece while imprisoned, but he premiered it as well. With less-than-quality instruments, Messiaen and his fellow camp members performed the piece in January 1941 to a mixture of prisoners and guards.
“Messiaen, with this very weird combination of instruments, gets amazing textures,” Greenholtz said. “He has the instruments play in unison a lot. It’s kind of a rustic and slightly sinister piece. It’s a very unusual experience.”
Baxter agrees, adding, “He wrote this quartet for the end of time because the war was all consuming. He felt his way of life was coming to an end. Yet despite everything working against him, he created such beautiful music.”
Rather religious, Messiaen employs apocalyptic themes to enhance his message.
“The instruments often represent sounds of the apocalypse. Like with trumps or gongs,” Greenholtz said. “It’s almost too much for words. All the contrast and all the unsettled feelings you have through the piece, yet he ends on an ecstatic note.”
At Home in the Arsenal
It’s worth mentioning the significance of performing such a program at the Rock Island Arsenal.
“The Arsenal venue is a new one for us,” Greenholtz said. “I’m very pleased that we have the opportunity to present this particular program at such a significant location. To personally discover new spaces to present chamber music is very special.”
Baxter echoes the sentiment, saying he’s excited to help bring public visibility to a location that often feels out of bounds.
“The Arsenal can sometimes get overlooked because it can feel inaccessible. But it’s right in the middle of the Quad Cities, it employs tons of people in town, and it’s a historic instillation,” he said. “It was a natural fit for us to pair this program with the Arsenal.”
WVIK/QCSO Signature Series I: War Reflections
October 26, 2019 | 7:30 p.m.
Heritage Hall, Rock Island Arsenal
Bldg 60 Rock Island Arsenal | Rock Island, IL
Purchase Tickets | $25 Adults each | $10 Students each
Pro Patria Books for Sale
The book Pro Patria: The Story of An American Who Fought for Italy in World War I by Marcella Bernard will be available for sale before the performance and during intermission at a QCSO exclusive price of $15. Cash, Check, and Credit Card accepted.