This concert features the Boston premiere of Steven Sametz’s “A Child’s Requiem,” a moving oratorio composed in 2014 in response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The music’s text combines writings by school children, teachers and administrators with texts by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson and others. The composer collected more than 500 stories from children around the country for use in this piece.
“Steven Sametz's ‘A Child's Requiem’ exquisitely captures the grief of loss while affirming innocence, hope, and a greater need to protect the most vulnerable among us,” said Music Director Lisa Graham.
The May 12 program also features songs inspired by childhood with music by John Rutter, Veljo Tormis and Peter Maxwell Davies. Alyson Greer will direct the Young Women’s Chorus, and soloists Bethany Worrell (soprano) and David Vanderwal (tenor) will join the chorale. Vanderwal premiered “A Child’s Requiem” in its debut performance at the University of Connecticut in March 2015, and he is featured on a new recording of the piece. He will be traveling from New York City for this performance.
Steven Sametz, in his program notes for this work, reminds his audience that images of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, dominated the news on Dec. 14, 2012. Chief among them, he writes, was the photograph of a line of children being led out of the school to the nearby fire station.“Twenty children and six teachers and administrators were slain that day,” Sametz said. “Sandy Hook pointed to basic human fears we carry within us: the fear as children that our world is not safe, and the fear as adults that we can’t keep the world safe for children.”
There will be a short pre-concert program featuring Steven Sametz, composer of A Child’s Requiem; and a representative of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, a center of healing, teaching, and learning for families and communities impacted by murder, trauma, grief, and loss.
I remember exactly where I was when the news about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School reached me. You probably do, too. I had spent the December afternoon at a holiday lunch, a festive occasion that had removed me from the pressure of concerts and seasonal stress for a few blissful hours. The shock and horror that I was confronted with shortly after couldn’t have contrasted more with the joyful gathering, which suddenly seemed frivolous in the wake of the unfolding tragedy.
The year 2017 marks the fifth anniversary of the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children between six and seven years old, along with six adult staff members, lost their lives in a tragic act of violence. Composer Steven Sametz was raised 20 miles from Newtown and wanted to do something about and for his home state. In 2013, he submitted a proposal for the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Music Prize, administered through the University of Connecticut. He was awarded the prize to write a major work that would offer healing to the families of Newtown while asking this difficult question: How can we keep our children safe in a culture of violence? The result was an oratorio titled A Child's Requiem, a work of great musical value and depth. I had several conversations with Sametz about A Child’s Requiem in preparation for the performance of the work this evening.
The ten-movement, 50-minute work is scored for soprano, treble, and tenor soloists, children’s choir, adult choir, child speakers, and chamber orchestra. The orchestral scoring includes a core of six instruments (flute, clarinet, French horn, piano/toy piano, harp, and percussion) and strings. Like the Britten War Requiem, the six core instruments are often used separately to accompany the more intimate solo sections of the work. The core instruments also use a digital delay, giving them a haunting quality, and giving the chamber ensemble a more symphonic coloration.
The ten movements juxtapose two worlds: an innocent “child’s world” and a harsher, more complex adult world. The “child’s world” is tonal; for the adult world, Sametz utilizes a harsher harmonic vocabulary. It is the collision of these two worlds that gives the work its depth.
Sametz has said that A Child’s Requiem was a unique compositional journey:
“The compositional process is usually private: the composer, a pencil, a piano. But I knew from the outset that I wanted to give voice to the peer group most affected at Sandy Hook. So very early on, the process went public as I reached out to elementary schools across the country, asking for children’s responses to tragedy and loss. I was aided in this by a number of inspiring school teachers, administrators and parents.”
Sametz had been awarded a three-week residency at the prestigious Yaddo Artist Colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. in February and March of 2014. He shared his reaction on arriving at Yaddo to work on A Child’s Requiem:
“It was an honor to be where Copland and Bernstein had composed, and a little daunting. It was February, and I was assigned a small studio with all white walls. It was snowing out almost continuously. I felt like I was in some psychology experiment with nothing but white to look at. So I put up about 500 children’s drawings on the wall, and it was like I was suddenly in a kindergarten classroom. It was a perfect place to write.
“I thought I’d spend the three weeks just sorting through texts and hoped to come up with a libretto. That was my expectation. For whatever reason, the libretto came together in about three days. When it was done, I was a little taken aback: the words of the children, in combination with the American poets, were so strong. I wondered if I could write a piece as strong as the words.”
In three weeks at Yaddo, the work was sketched out completely. Sametz continued:
“I had ridden up to Yaddo and stopped at Newtown on the way. I visited the site of Sandy Hook Elementary School, which has been razed. As I drove out of the town, I had the realization that, while I had been considering that this piece was going to be about Newtown, it was not. It was much more universal than that. This incident, while it happened in Newtown, could have happened anywhere. And that opened up the piece in a very different way.”
One of the ways the piece opened up was to include a broader discussion of children who live in a culture of violence. One of the schools that contributed much of the text for A Child’s Requiem was the Hamilton-Disston School in inner-city Philadelphia.
“I set words from eleven students at Hamilton-Disston. I’d been greatly aided by the music teacher there, Katherine Young, who also sings in my professional ensemble, The Princeton Singers. Katie was able to get responses from all grade levels at Hamilton-Disston, and their responses were very powerful. These are kids who have seen their relatives shot in the street and live learning to get in the bathtub when they hear gunshots, as that’s the safest place to be.
“Nobody had told their stories. It was a very difficult time, but it may have been an opening for the kids as well. They all came to the performances in Stamford, Connecticut and later at Lehigh University. One of them told me, ‘Dr. Sametz, I want to be a filmmaker when I grow up.’ Another one told me she wanted to be a poet. This was a remarkable transformation from the kids I’d seen shut-down a few months earlier. And, in a remarkable note I received later, an eight year old who’d seen his father shot, wrote me after the premiere and said, ‘This makes it so I can talk about this now.’ If nothing else happens, this constitutes success in a way I couldn’t have predicted for the piece.
“My hope is that A Child’s Requiem, while written to commemorate a national tragedy, can open up a larger conversation about how our society treats important issues about keeping children safe.”
There is FREE PARKING at the Broadway Garage located on Felton Street, between Broadway and Cambridge Streets. Patrons tell the attendant that they are attending a Sanders Theatre event. They receive a swipe ticket which they will use to get back into the garage after the show, and which they will use to exit.
For driving directions and public transportation: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~memhall/directions.html
Venue is Wheelchair Accessible.
Venue website: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~memhall/sanders.html