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Civil War Songs Reset for 21st Century

  • Gail Wein

Soprano Dawn Upshaw, portraying a US soldier returning from Afghanistan, rehearses 'Winds of Destiny' at the Ojai Music Festival in California.

Soprano Dawn Upshaw, portraying a US soldier returning from Afghanistan, rehearses 'Winds of Destiny' at the Ojai Music Festival in California.

The U.S. Civil War may be a century and a half behind us, but American emotions about the conflict can still be raw. Director Peter Sellars has taken music by Pulitzer-prize winning composer George Crumb and updated it to present day. Crumb’s "Winds of Destiny" recasts familiar Civil War-era songs in a jagged, haunting style.

Sellars was attracted to Crumb’s score after realizing that the situation in the United States today mirrors that of the Civil War 150 years ago.

"The kind of virulence and anger and fury of one part of the country towards another part of the country is bitter, and the same loneliness, bitterness, sourness, that these songs reflect from the Civil War period - "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," but also the songs of longing - "Shenandoah." These were American songs from a time when the country was torn apart, and they reflect the kind of emotional intensity of the divide and also the longing to come together."

Crumb first set these songs in 2004. He remembered hearing Dawn Upshaw perform one of them years before. He decided to incorporate her interpretation into his music.

"Dawn Upshaw performed some folk songs, including "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," and she repeated the first verse in a kind of funereal way, very sad, like the words were there, "We’ll shout," and "The girls will applaud," and all that, and yet she gave it an ironic twist."

In the new Sellars staging, Upshaw sings "Winds of Destiny" including that song about a soldier returning home after the war. She says it's one of the most astonishing moments in the song cycle.

Dawn Upshaw performs 'The Winds Of Destiny' at a dress rehearsal on June 8, 2011 in Ojai, California.

Dawn Upshaw performs 'The Winds Of Destiny' at a dress rehearsal on June 8, 2011 in Ojai, California.

"There’s fear and there’s danger, and there’s even anger in the singer, because the singer yells at the ends of many phrases," Upshaw says. "That’s a really extreme and serious moment in the whole piece, one of several, but because it is taking this tune that we all kind of know from our past as being filled with a fair amount of pride or something, but it kind of turns it inside on itself, in this painful introspection."

Sellars has created a character and a narrative out of the original song cycle. A female U.S. soldier is returning home from the war in Afghanistan.

"And so the intensity with which women return and the harrowing experiences, both on the battlefield - things they’ve been asked to do that they cannot live with the rest of their lives - in addition to things that have happened to them that still can’t be talked about or acknowledged. It’s very, very intense," says Sellars.

Pianist Gilbert Kalish and the Red Fish Blue Fish percussion quartet accompany Upshaw on stage, and all the performers are dressed in camouflage.

Kalish says that Sellars' direction is subtle.

"And he’s very clever. He knows I’m not an actor. And so he has me doing very simple things, very slow walking and going over to Dawn, the soldier, and in some very quiet way, trying to comfort her. I say nothing. I almost do nothing.....The music is so powerful and what he asks us to do was so connected to the music that it felt right. It felt as if I was really involved in this drama."

The drama of war and its aftermath were very much a part of Crumb’s initial inspiration. But there’s also reverence for the songs themselves. Crumb calls "Shenandoah" one of the most beautiful folk songs of any country.

Sellars says its poetry and ambiguity allow the audience to make its own interpretation.

"The song is so haunting and it resonates on so many levels, it remains poetic. I hope what we’re making is the same, that it’s extremely evocative and at the same time poetic and open. And every audience member puts their own images there and their own experiences, and it stimulates your own imagination."

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