2018-05-03 / Front Page

Community chorus to honor 100th anniversary of end of WWI

BY RYAN GIBBS


B.J. Whitehouse conducts a rehearsal Monday at Central Baptist Church to prepare the Jamestown Community Chorus for this weekend’s concert to commemorate the armistice of World War I. 
PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN B.J. Whitehouse conducts a rehearsal Monday at Central Baptist Church to prepare the Jamestown Community Chorus for this weekend’s concert to commemorate the armistice of World War I. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN A German-singing history teacher and audio recordings of century-old poems will underscore a concert this weekend to commemorate the Great War.

The Jamestown Community Chorus will perform their spring production, “Over There: A Remembrance of the War to End All Wars,” at 4 p.m. Saturday at the recreation center, 41 Conanicus Ave. There is an encore at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Chorus director B.J. Whitehouse wants to highlight World War I because of the centennial of the armistice, which ended the conflict Nov. 11, 1918. The event is not intended to be a celebration, however, but a tribute to the soldiers who died during the four years of war.

“I call it a musical remembrance rather than a concert because some of this will be done not necessarily in concert, but in memory of those who served and died,” he said. “It was one of the most horrific conflicts, if you can rate them in any kind of way, that the world had ever been involved in. The war was unbelievably bloody, outrageously so.”

The concert is split into two parts. The first half is a somber presentation that opens with the national anthems of the United Kingdom, France and the United States. The set will be decorated with the flags of those three nations, including a 48-star American flag.

The chorus will then perform a selection of subdued numbers. Among the pieces include “The Lads in Their Hundreds” by British composer George Butterworth and a musical adaptation of “Dulce et Decorum Est,” a poem that translates to “how sweet and honorable it is,” written by countryman Wilfred Owen. Both men were killed in action during the war, with Owen dying just a week before the armistice was signed.

Although most of the program will feature songs popular in the Allied countries, there is one German selection included. “Wildganse rauschen durch die Nacht,” translated to “wild geese rush through the night,” will be performed by guest singer Stephen Ferris.

Several special guests

A U.S. Army veteran and history teacher at Rogers High School in Newport, Ferris often sings historical songs in his classes, including a few in German. He became involved in the concert through a student of his who also is a member of the chorus. She initially approached him looking for song suggestions for the concerts, but when he brought up the German song, his involvement increased.

“To my surprise, they not only wanted the song, they wanted me,” he said.

Ferris selected “Wildganse” because he thought its lyrics may surprise the audience that expected something more militaristic from German wartime music.

“It came to my mind as a song that might seem a little unexpected in its contents,” he said. “It’s really a song of longing for soldiers in the trenches, who watch the wild geese flying and wonder where they’re going to be the next time they come back.”

Ferris isn’t the only special guest at the show. Local bugle player Michael Jackson will perform “The Last Post,” which is the British equivalent of “Taps.” He will be accompanied by Peter Heme, who will read the accompanying Robert Graves poem. For the finale of the first half, Silas Neale will play the bagpipes on “The Flowers of the Forest,” which is traditionally played at the funerals of British soldiers.

Aside from songs, poetry also will be incorporated into the two performances. Whitehouse recorded members of the chorus reciting poems from soldiers, civilians and critics of the war. The recordings will be discreetly incorporated into the performances, creating an ethereal effect.

“Way in the background, as we are singing, you will hear this kind of murmur of all of this poetry from that era,” Whitehouse said. “The whole idea is to evoke those ghosts from that time, to invite them to our remembrance.”

The poetry selections were chosen by chorus member Dorothy Strang. As a lifelong pacifist, Strang initially had some reservations about the content of the concert before Whitehouse detailed his intent for it.

“The way B.J. approached the whole commemoration was obviously a chance to help people broaden their view of the war,” said Strang, who will be performing in her final concert as she prepares her move to Chicago. “One of the ways I have helped in other concerts is to provide poetry. I know a good bit about World War I poets, so I presented a lot of poems to the chorus to have people read.”

On stage during the first half of the concert, Strang will read the poem “Perhaps” by British war nurse Vera Brittain.

“I wanted to be sure to have to more than just the soldier poets,” she said. “I did a little digging and I found this poem. She wrote it for her fallen fiancĂ©. He was killed by sniper fire on the front lines at age 20.”

One of the most famous poems from the era, “In Flanders Fields,” will be performed in a choral arrangement. The poem was written by Canadian army doctor John McCrae, and its description of poppies growing on the graves of soldiers have resulted in that flower being adopted as a symbol of remembrance for those who died in the war. Likewise, all of the performers will wear poppies on stage.

A tale of two halves

The concert’s second half has a comparatively lighter tone than the first, and features pop tunes from the era. Many of these songs are still well known, including “Pack up your Troubles in an Old Kit Bag” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

The decision was made to place the somber and lighter songs into two distinct halves, as opposed to scattering them around the program. Whitehouse didn’t want the show’s tone to seem disrespectful to those who perished.

“I didn’t want to show anything less than admiration and reverence for sacrifice of all the combatants by interspersing silly songs,” he said. “The happy songs were there for people stateside to keep their spirits up.”

Providence native George M. Cohan was one of best known entertainers in America during the war. He will be represented in the second half of the show by his wartime song “Over There.” Although the concert is named after that song, Whitehouse said the composer’s Rhode Island connection had nothing to do with that decision. Instead, the song was included because of its continued popularity.

“If you ask anybody what the song that comes to mind from World War I in the United States, I think ‘Over There’ is the most popular,” he said. “I wrote an arrangement for the chorus, and so we’ll definitely be singing that one.”

Whitehouse said he wants the audiences for the two performances to treat the first half of the event as more of a memorial than a concert.

“Millions of people died on all sides in this conflict,” he said. “I hope that people walk away from that with an understanding, and perhaps even a renewed interest in reading more about World War I. But then, I hope they enjoy the second half, and sing along when they know the songs.”

Tickets for both performances of “Over There” are available at Baker’s Pharmacy and The Secret Garden. They also are available online at the chorus website. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 at the door and $12 for students.

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