Claire Nowak

All Singing on the Western Front

Concert by Cantus ensemble performs carols sung by WWI troops who called a surprise truce in 1914.

By - Nov 25th, 2014 03:14 pm
Cantus. Photo by Curtis Johnson.

Cantus. Photo by Curtis Johnson.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was an incredible episode in the history of war. On Christmas Eve and into Christmas Day, troops along frontline trenches ceased fire. German, English, and French soldiers ignored combat orders to sing carols, exchange food and cigarettes, and help one another bury the dead.

In honor of the truce’s 100th anniversary, Cantus, an all-male vocal ensemble based in Minneapolis, presents “All Is Calm,” a musical and theatrical tribute to that night. This will be the show’s seventh and final Christmas tour.

The program features familiar Christmas carols arranged into virtuosic concert pieces, as well as trench tunes sung during the war. Some are performed in English and others in German or French to represent the three nationalities in combat. Interspersed between songs, actors from Theater Latté Da give dramatic readings of letters, poetry, and official war documents of that time to compliment the musical selections.

Cantus tenor Aaron Humble worked with Theater Latté Da’s artistic director Peter Rothstein and others to create a show that effectively balances theater and history. Before Rothstein approached Cantus with the idea, Humble didn’t know the ceasefire even happened. Few do.

“History sort of just eliminated this from the history of the war for a long time because it was a source of shame,” Humble explains. “It showed that from a military perspective, people were insubordinate and not listening to their orders, but from a humanitarian perspective, it’s much more powerful.”

Humble is in his tenth season with Cantus and has performed the “All Is Calm” program over 150 times. Yet he is still moved by the stories the performers share. One of the most powerful scenes, in his opinion, is heard near the end of the set. It recounts an incident where an English soldier is ordered to shoot a German walking along the top of their trench. He obeys, and his fellow Englishman must live the rest of his life in regret that his country ended that part of the truce.

Drastic changes in wartime strategies and technology lead Humble to believe such a truce could not happen again today. Increasingly frequent use of drones and airplanes allows for less face-to-face interaction, and in turn, fewer chances to feel any genuine camaraderie among fellow soldiers.

“That basic humanity was what made it happen,” Humble says. “In the right circumstances, I imagine it could still happen today, but I can’t imagine a scenario where those circumstances would be present.”

Whether audiences are exposed to the exchange for the first time or rehearing it the seventh time, their reactions are consistently ones of respect and awe.

“There are some times when there’s just silence,” Humble says, “and it is some of the quietest silence I’ve ever heard.”

“All Is Calm” is the only show Cantus has ever repeated, so the nine singers in the group became quite attached to it. But laying it to rest opens up new possibilities for Christmas specials, perhaps touring one of the concerts they perform regularly in the Twin Cities.

“I’ll be sad to be done with it,” Humble says, “but I’m also excited what the next generation of it will be because I know that in some form, it will continue on here in the Twin Cities and probably nationwide.”

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was never replicated at any point during World War I. World War II never saw such a ceasefire either. For Humble, that doesn’t mean those feelings of goodwill are dead; they arose, after all from a universal bond that unites all humanity: “I think if we remember that we’re all part of the human race, it’ll do us all a lot of good.”

8 p.m. Nov. 29 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. Tickets range from $37-67and are available online or by calling 262-781-9520.

Symphonie Fantastique by MSO

Few composers are recognized for producing truly revolutionary works that made innovative strides in technique and style. Even fewer did so with no formal music education.

Hector Berlioz was only 26 when his first symphony, “Symphonie Fantastique,” debuted in 1830, yet it included stylistic choices no other composer had attempted. He wrote for an orchestra at least 30 percent larger than Beethoven’s. He experimented with new combinations of instruments. He even added various drums and bells never before used in a symphony.

Part of his Parisian audience was scandalized, others enticed by his genius. Conductor Jeffrey Kahne is confident audiences listening to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’sperformance this weekend will fall into the latter group.

“(Berlioz) took the concept of a symphony and turned it into a very personal, dramatic, and I would say even cinematic kind of experience,” Kahne says. “He wanted the audience to listen to his symphony the way we would go to a movie. It tells a very specific story, and it depicts these scenes from (an) artist’s life in an amazingly vivid way.”

The symphony is broken down into five sections, each telling a different episode in the artist’s life as he falls desperately in love. Berlioz used his own feelings for Irish actress Harriet Smithson as inspiration. The light theme repeated throughout the work symbolizes the beloved woman, but it turns grotesque in the final two sections, “March to the Scaffold” and “Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath.” Some original listeners took great offense to the dark imagery. For Kahne, it’s another testament to the remarkable talent that created “Symphonie Fantastique”

“It would have been a miracle even if he had had formal training just because of how extraordinarily imaginative, audacious and glorious the music is,” Kahne says. “But the fact that he did it without any formal training is mind boggling.”

In addition to conducting, Kahne will perform as the soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, also part of this weekend’s program. Though it is fairly rare today, Kahne has sufficient experience conducting while playing a concerto and says it was the norm for conductors to be soloists until the 1820s.

8 p.m. Nov. 29 & 2:30 p.m. Nov. 30 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range from $21-101 and are available online or by calling 414-291-7605.

Big Band Holidays: Jazz at Lincoln Center

The internationally acclaimed Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra returns to Milwaukee for a holiday show full of swing and soul. These 15 leading jazz soloists are joined on tour by musical director Wynton Marsalis and guest vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant.

7:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range form $26-86 and are available online or by calling 414-273-7206.

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