By Dr. Rob Tomaro
Arts Correspondent and Music Director of the Rock River Philharmonic
Saturday night, Nov. 8, “Dreams of the Fallen,” an ambitious work for chorus, orchestra and solo piano, received its area premiere by the Rockford Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Steven Larsen, and the Mendelssohn Chorale, which was prepared by Maestra Martha Bein. The piano part was performed by the wonderful Jeffrey Biegel.
A consortium of five orchestras across the country commissioned the composition of “Dreams of the Fallen.” The composer, Rockford native Jake Runestad, set to music a text by Iraqi war veteran Brian Turner. His poem evokes, in a graphic and searing way, the reality of combat and the residue of the post-traumatic stress syndrome that haunts our fighting men and women long after returning home.
Runestad’s musical language, his vocabulary, if you will, is uniquely suited to the task of bringing to sonic life Turner’s text. The score threads its way elegantly through the psychological twists and turns of the chaos of war and the soul-numbing confusion that afflicts the veteran as he or she confronts the challenge of creating normalcy in a life so terribly disrupted by the experience of combat.
The singers function as a kind of Greek chorus, at times omniscient, at times eliding into the voice of the protagonist; bereft, furious and, by turns, savagely triumphant. The composer’s conventional choral approach blossoms into episodes of avant-garde writing in the form of aleatoric performance; that is, a collective, atonal improvisation by the chorus that casts an eerie, galvanizing spell over the audience. Think of the wailing you hear at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey from Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, and you will have some idea.
I asked baritone Rich Hilliard what the rehearsal process was like. “At first, it was daunting for many of us,” he said. “We were faced with learning an entirely new musical language, and it was tough. But finally, as we neared the end of the performance, many of us were in tears. It was very emotional.”
The role of the solo piano is central to the work. The composer wishes it to “embody a character that could speak clearly and directly to the listener.” He is successful in this. While the texture produced by the chorus and orchestra shapes the world inhabited by narrator, the piano is intimate, personal, inviting us into his mind to witness his journey back from hell. It was played marvelously by Biegel.
The piece was framed by two very different works, and aptly so. It was followed by a glowing reading of Dvorak’s boisterous and jovial Symphony No. 5 in F major, Op. 76., lovingly conducted by Maestro Larsen and played pristinely by the orchestra.
The evening began, though, with Samuel Barber’s revered Adagio for Strings, a triumph of the evocation of inner yearning, of human struggle. Its architecture is stunning; a long, over-reaching arch, seemingly expelled in one tortured breath.
It set the stage for the Runestad musically and emotionally, since many in the audience surely recalled its appearance as the elegy that follows Willem Dafoe’s Christ-like figure in Oliver Stone’s film Platoon. Once you have seen him reeling and finally dying in slow motion in the Vietnam field at the end of that movie, the image is indelibly with you, always. It is the same with “Dreams of the Fallen.” The integrity, clarity and emotional punch of this piece will linger long after the echoes from that night have faded away into the rafters of the Coronado.
Hearty kudos to Maestro Larsen, Maestra Bein, Runestad, Biegel and all the members of the orchestra and chorus for their courage and skill in bringing this important piece to life.
Rob Tomaro is music director for life of the Rock River Philharmonic.
From the Nov. 19-25, 2014, issue