A sad-sweet symphony for our times

Who among us has not felt the haunting, sad-sweetness of innocence long lost as we sat by a water’s edge while dawn mists, uncurling, softly summoned memories of what once was, a time before regret.

It surprised me that I had much the same response to the opening of Michael Horwood’s new choral symphony. I had expected otherwise, because the symphony is a musical setting for nine poems on the environment that are uncompromisingly bleak.

The music, I feared, would be earnest and harsh. What a pleasant surprise, then, to discover a musical lyricism running through the work. That might seem a paradox when the text deals with toxic waste, clear cutting, pollution, global warming, and environmental devastation in general. But, on the contrary, it highlights the horror of the texts.

This isn’t a new technique. In the opera Tosca, for instance, Puccini used sublime church music as a dramatic backdrop for the aria in which Scarpia reveals how evil he is. In Horwood’s hands, the technique works powerfully, especially in his settings for The Deities are Gone from the Hills, a poem by Doris Hillis that opens the symphony, and for the finale, Alchemy, a two-part poem by Magie Dominic.

The major criticism I have is that in some of the interior settings, Horwood doesn’t stretch far enough for new shadings, and so a sense of sameness creeps in. But that aside, there is much to engage a listener, like the setting for a poemcalled Change!, also by Doris Hillis. In rousing 5/8 time it urges:

Change! Change! There must be change!
Change in the way we think
Change in our lust to grab
Change in the things we waste
Change in the desires we have

Horwood calls the work Symphony No. 2, Visions of a Wounded Earth. It received its premiere a year ago with the International Symphony Orchestra of Sarnia and Port Huron. What I heard was Horwood’s non-professional tape of the performance. It sounded as if the choir and orchestra were seriously under-rehearsed, but the character of the work still came through. The next public performance will be on November 16 and 17 by the Kingston Symphony Orchestra under Glen Fast.

What intrigues me about this work is the enormous challenge it faces, of taking a grim subject and turning it into music that people will want to spend an hour listening to.

The challenge is not unusual in music. Arnold Schoenberg’s opera Erwartung (a psychological puzzle that centres on a possible murder), and Alban Berg’s operas Lulu (a woman lured to death by Jack the Ripper), and Wozzeck (a suicide), deal with subjects that are grim by any definition. Yet the Canadian Opera Company has staged highly successful performances of each of them.

There’s nary a tune that you can leave a performance whistling in any of these operas, and it’s the same with Horwood’s choral symphony. Everything depends on the dramatic meshing of text and music. Without a text to read as the music is performed, common variety listeners, such as I, would flounder in confusion and disinterest.

It took Horwood, who teaches music appreciation and humanities at Humber College, two years to write the symphony, « And I have to say this is a tough piece of music,’’ he says. It’s difficult to sing, the choir needs about four months of rehearsal, and it’s a marginal art form to begin with. What’s more, « I’m a marginal entity; I’m not well known.’’ As he rhymes off the barriers to performance, sitting in the living room of his Bramalea home, you have to wonder why he ever started the work.

« It was a chance to express myself in one of music’s grandest forms,’’ he says. « And you live in hope for that one person in the audience for whom it’s going to click.’’ That can happen on many levels. I like to think there’ll be some who leave the next performance saying: « There must be change.’’

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