What happens when a renowned Canadian poet is drawn to confront the Canadian tragedy of first contact between European and Aboriginal cultures?
He writes a radio play in the 1950s, which is unfortunately not well received and it fades into history.
Thirty years later, when the Vancouver Centennial Committee commissioned a rising young modern composer to write a piece to celebrate the city — he took that radio play as the basis for the lyrics to draw attention to the still-unresolved impacts of that contact.
Song of the Salish Chief by Vancouver composer Peter Bjerring, with lyrics by Earle Birney, is the cantata that arose from this unique collaboration. It conveys the stories of a Salish chief, told to his son, about the time before first contact. It tells of what has been lost through that experience.
The story is seen through the eyes of a young man, from the time his father was chief, until the time the young man becomes chief. The text will be narrated by Andrew Callicum, a member of the Mowachaht Muchalaht First Nation, currently working in Port Alberni for the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.
The music and text depict the early journeys of the Salish people, the weaving of baskets by the women, the joys and excitement of a successful hunt, the chief’s first potlatch (a ceremonial feast among First Nations of the northwest Pacific coast) and, finally, the sadness of watching his longhouses burn and the tragic demise of his nation.
The text and the music combine to tell a difficult story that that is sometimes hard for the dominant culture to hear.
The work will be presented by the combined voices of Island Voices Chamber Choir and Cantiamo Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Dr. Graeme Langager, professor of conducting and director of choral activities at the UBC Faculty of Music. Island Voices’ director Jo-Anne Preston and Cantiamo’s director Jenn Riley have been rehearsing the piece since Christmas.
The Hands Across the Divide concert will be performed twice. Opening night is April 21 at 7 p.m. in Campbell River United Church. The second performance is at the Sid Williams Theatre on April 22 at 7 p.m.
The second work in this concert is a dramatic contrast — it is a classically based choral work following the traditional catholic mass text. Missa Pax was composed by another Vancouver composer, Timothy Corlis.
While the text is traditional, the score conveys the strong message that peace between diverse cultures and peoples requires understanding and acceptance of differences … differences that convey the beauty within that diversity.
Composed in 2009, the Missa Pax has already established a strong track record with mid-concert ovations both at the Elora Festival and at the prestigious Festival of the Sound. Reviewer Steven Preece described the piece after its premier as “conjuring of heavenly radiance”, “fantastically cathartic”, and possessing an “emotional authenticity irresistible to the listener.”
Both pieces are being presented by the Community Justice Centre of the Comox Valley as part of a four month-long Arts Engagement project. The project is exploring the various voices of the arts as a means of seeking greater awareness and understanding of the impacts of racism, homophobia and hate.
The current exhibition Towards Grace at the Comox Valley Art Gallery is one part of the project. Another element is the double bill of the plays Torn Rainbow and Everybody Goes to Tim’s being presented at the Stan Hagen Theatre at North Island College on April 24 at 7 p.m. The final element will be the unveiling of a huge, youth-designed mural, on the back wall of the Elk’s Hall, facing Cliffe Avenue in early June.
Tickets for the Comox Valley performance are available from the Sid Williams Ticket Centre (by phone or online) and also at the Laughing Oyster Book Shop on Fifth Street.
— Comox Valley Community Justice Centre