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Peace Piece 

State of the Arts

Published April 5, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

There is strength in numbers. That's one lesson to be drawn from this weekend's joint concert by the Burlington Choral Society and the University of Vermont Concert Choir. With 165 singers and 45 instrumentalists, the combined ensemble creates some serious sound. Another theme is strength in unity - "celebrating town and gown, university and community," as David Neiweem puts it. He directs both groups, but this is the first time they have performed as a single unit.

The evening's most profound message, though, is conveyed by the program itself. Peace, and its elusiveness, is the focus of Leonard Bernstein's Bible-based Chichester Psalms. It's also the theme of From Revenge to Forgiveness, a work UVM professor Michael Hopkins wrote for this concert, which marks its world premiere.

Hopkins' original inspiration came from the events of September 11, 2001. Like so many people, he felt he "needed to do something," he explains. His first thought was to use Scripture to create an "American requiem." But by the time he was finally able to work on the piece - thanks to a university grant that began last June - the political landscape had changed.

Rather than focusing exclusively on grief, Hopkins decided to use war poetry from different eras to reflect "a cycle of emotion that people may go through in a period of conflict," he says. "I wanted to write a piece that would have universal appeal to both the antiwar activist and the soldier coming back or the mother of the soldier who died."

Selecting lyrics proved challenging - there was just too much material to choose from. Sadly, war is of perennial interest. "Besides love," Hopkins discovered, "no other topic has been more treated by poets."

The 60-minute, seven-part oratorio opens with a powerful poem entitled "Revenge." The following section concerns combat and its consequences: Walt Whitman's "A Vision of Armies" progresses from the bluster of battle to the "debris of all dead soldiers." The third movement, "Suffering," pairs a World War I poem with Stephen Crane's "War Is Kind." Written during the Spanish-American conflict, it contrasts anguish over a fallen loved one with the false promise of military glory. Section Four, "Grief," conveys a tragic sense of timelessness; in the 2000-year-old Roman text, a man reacts to news that his brother has died in a war halfway around the world.

From Revenge to Forgiveness reaches its crescendo in the "Remembrance" movement, which honors fallen heroes. U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove penned it for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Hopkins' musical climax coincides with Dove's line, "Remember us! Do not forget!"

"Hope" follows. In this soft intermezzo, a folk fiddle tune commemorating a Scottish battle introduces Lucille Clifton's poem, "let there be a new flowering."

"After we've experienced grief and start looking towards the future," Hopkins explains, "there's this bright moment of hope that this will be the last war." Not likely. The fact that prayers for peace are millennia old "implies that as humans we're not able to figure it out for ourselves," he suggests.

Accordingly, the final movement takes a religious tone. "Peace - Forgiveness" starts with a declarative, "cathedral-like" setting of a ceremonial Omaha Tribe song: "The clear sky / the green fruitful earth is good / But peace among men is better." It moves on to "Blessed are the peacemakers" from the Sermon on the Mount, and ends with the imploring "Dona nobis pacem." Translation: Grant us peace.

Hopkins, 39, has been at UVM since 1999. He began his career teaching at the middle and high school level, and is well known for his string arrangements for teen players. From Revenge to Forgiveness is his most ambitious undertaking.

After spending a couple of months selecting his texts, Hopkins says, he sketched out the movements for choir and wrote the instrumentation as a piano score. A computer program turned his notation into a MIDI recording, which helped him hear and tweak the piece's flow. In early November he sought Neiweem's feedback, and the completed work went to the chorus for rehearsal in late January.

Hopkins won't hear the results until the first time the chorus rehearses with the orchestra - just four days before it's shared with an audience. What sort of impact is he hoping for? Hopkins puts it modestly: "To get people to think about their world in a slightly different way than before."


The winners of the first Blooker Prizes - for books based on blogs - were announced Monday, and Stowe resident Tom Evslin's murder mystery won runner-up in the fiction category. That wasn't enough for a cut of the prize money, but it did earn him a mention in an article about the Blookers in USA Today. Not bad for a first-time, self-published author.

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Ruth Horowitz


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