Peace project brings international partnership

Posted Online: Feb. 05, 2012, 5:56 pm
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By Jonathan Turner,
DAVENPORT -- Benjamin Britten's 1962 "War Requiem" is one of the biggest masterworks around, requiring about 350 musicians to perform it.

To mark its 50th anniversary, Mark Russell Smith, Quad City Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor, wanted to partner with the University of Minnesota, where he's head of orchestral studies, to mount concerts here and in the Twin Cities.

Now his plan has bloomed into a much larger undertaking, which is being called the "Britten Peace Project."

In an unprecedented international collaboration, the QCSO leader and Augustana College Choir also will go to the Hochschule fur Musik in Detmold, Germany, to perform it there with German music students on Feb. 18-19.

Members of the German choir will sing it with the Augustana College Choir, Quad City Choral Arts, the University of Minnesota Choir, Macalester College Choir and Minnesota Boychoir March 1-3 at the University of Minnesota, and in March 3-4 concerts at the Adler Theatre and Centennial Hall in the Quad-Cities. The QCSO only will perform in the local concerts; orchestras in the Twin-Cities and Detmold will accompany the performances at those venues.

Inspired by this massive production, other organizations around the Quad-Cities are planning projects intended to complement the "War Requiem" experience and connect the two 20th-century world wars to today's ongoing global conflicts.

"We're very excited to present this to you," Mr. Smith said Sunday at Galvin Fine Arts Center during the kickoff of St. Ambrose University's newest series of CommUniversity classes. He took part in one of them -- "Britten's War Requiem: Music With History, Poetry, and More," conducted by Augustana faculty members Jon Hurty, David Crowe, David Ellis and Rev. Richard Priggie, to provide context to Mr. Britten's epic anti-war masterpiece.

The "War Requiem" -- which never before has been performed in the Quad-Cities -- was commissioned for the 1962 rededication of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in England, which had been destroyed by by the German Air Force during World War II.

It combines a setting of the Requiem Mass around nine poems by English poet and fallen World War I soldier Wilfred Owen.

The architect of the Coventry Cathedral project decided to keep some of the ruins and incorporate them into the new cathedral, Mr. Smith said. "It's an incredible metaphor that Benjamin Britten picked up on," he noted.

"What Britten does is take the familiar, like the architecture of Coventry Cathedral -- the Requiem Mass, and he almost quotes the Verdi Requiem and Mozart Requiem -- and he adds something new," Mr. Smith said. "He adds the 20th century perspective, the World War I perspective."

The conductor said that Wilfred Owen -- who was killed during the final days of World War I -- "wrote some of the most powerful war poetry that exists."

"This is a piece about the tragedy of war, the stakes involved, and a profound reminder of all of it," Mr. Smith said. "This is one of the most powerful works written in the 20th century."

It's such a large piece that it requires two conductors, including one leading a chamber orchestra and two male soloists, who represent soldiers and sing the poetry of Mr. Owen. A boys' choir adds disembodied, comforting voices, as from heaven. A soprano soloist also is featured

"To see how Benjamin Britten combines all this, puts it all together, to make a powerful statement about the tolls of war, I know people will be touched by it," Mr. Smith said. As for traveling to Germany to perform it with the college students, he noted: "It's not hyperbole to say it will be a life-changing event for these students."

Mr. Smith traveled to Germany three summers ago and met a friend of his, now a professor at the music school in Detmold. He also met the head of the school, and when they talked about his plans for "War Requiem," "his eyes lit up," Mr. Smith recalled. "It's a piece that means a lot to him," he said.

Mr. Smith learned the Augustana Choir planned to tour in Germany this year, and thought: "Wouldn't it be fantastic if they could join us over there?" The pieces fell into place, he said.

There are 65 students in the Augie choir, and they will be supplemented by 50 community singers in Quad City Choral Arts, also led by Jon Hurty, director of choral activities at Augustana. Some of the QCCA singers also will make the trip to Germany. The choir tour will include stops in Leipzig and Rothenburg, Germany, and Salzburg, Austria.

The Norwegian Nobel Institute will be holding its 23rd annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minnesota at the time of the "Britten Peace Project" concerts.

Mr. Smith, a native of Phoenix, Ariz., remembers his father was involved with the first "War Requiem" performance in 1968 in Phoenix, where he was chorus master for the symphony chorale. Mr. Smith was then 6. He will conduct the QCSO performance using his father's old score.

A sampling of 'Britten Peace Project' events

Friday, Feb. 24, 6:30 p.m. -- "War Requiem," a 1989 film by Derek Jarman, with no spoken dialogue, but simply accompanied by the Benjamin Britten work, at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport.

Saturday, Feb. 25, to Sunday, April 15 -- "War and Remembrance," art on loan from the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities, at the Figge Art Museum.
Thursday, March 1, 5:30 p.m. -- 
Army Sustainment Command Historian George Eaton describes the British trench experience in World War I and its influence on the poetry of Wilfred Owen, at the Hotel Blackhawk, Davenport.

Friday, March 2, at 5:30 p.m. -- 
Mr. Eaton will repeat his talk on British trench experience in World War I in the Caisson Room, Building 60, down the hall from the Rock Island Arsenal Museum.

Saturday, March 3 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. -- 
Ballet Quad Cities will present "From the Pages of a Young Girl's Life: The Story of Anne Frank," at the Holzworth Performing Arts Center, Davenport North High School.

For a complete schedule of "Britten Peace Project" events, visit


Local events heading

  Today is Monday, Sept. 15, the 258th day of 2014. There are 107 days left in the year.

1864 — 150 years ago: The Rock River Illinois conference of the Methodist Church will hold its annual sessions this week in this city. About 200 ministers are expected to attend.
1889 — 125 years ago: The Brush electric company had prepared a new schedule of rates to become effective Oct. 1, with slightly increased rates to consumers.
1914 — 100 years ago: The Rock Island Aerie of Eagles made plans for the laying of the cornerstone of a new $50,000 Eagles Home. W.C. Maucker is to be master of ceremonies.
1939 — 75 years ago: Col. Charles A. Lindbergh spoke on "America and Foreign War" in a neutrality debate over nation wide radio hook-up.
1964 — 50 years ago: Two awards of the National Safety council were presented to the city of Rock Island today at noon at a meeting held in the YWCA.
1989 — 25 years ago: The final tallies are not yet in for the summer 1989 Quad-Cities tourism season, but officials are expecting the number of visitors to the area to be at least as good as, if not better than, 1988.

(More History)