Activism? Seattle chorus turns to Pablo Neruda

The director of the Seattle Peace Chorus on Pablo Neruda, avoiding discouragement and the power of a good song.
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The director of the Seattle Peace Chorus on Pablo Neruda, avoiding discouragement and the power of a good song.
For decades Frederick N. West has been a charismatic figure in Seattle’s thriving choral scene. A conductor, teacher and composer, he has led the Seattle Peace Chorus since 2000. This weekend, the chorus will give a major concert devoted to poet Pablo Neruda’s “Canto General” in a musical setting by Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis.
Initially published in 1950 and generally regarded as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Neruda's masterwork, "Canto General" — sometimes regarded as Latin America's secular "bible" — is an epic collection of poems (totaling over 15,000 lines) that praise the nature and culture of the entire continent. Theodorakis, best known for his score to the film "Zorba the Greek," created a mammoth work of his own by choosing a dozen representative poems.

West also founded the City Cantábile Choir in 1981, which he directs, and is head of the music program at Shoreline Unitarian Church. Representing a unique convergence of passions for music making and social engagement, the Seattle Peace Chorus has been part of the local cultural landscape for 30 years now. 

Thomas May: How does the Seattle Peace Chorus fit into Seattle’s music scene  and what’s special about it?

Fred West: Seattle itself has become a kind of Mecca of choral singing over the past few decades. This is a city where, for the recent Folklife Festival, the Peace Chorus could give a sing-along performance of Mozart’s Requiem on Memorial Day dedicated to those who have died in wars — and people show up and know the piece like it’s a folk song. 

The Peace Chorus ranges from people who’ve recently graduated from college to senior singers and is unique in that we really define our community by a desire to sing for a more just and peaceful world. That brings people into our choir who really care about peace and justice issues, who aren’t content only to read about war or gun violence in the papers. They’re motivated to ask, “What can we do as a community to advocate for a more peaceful world?” That’s a vast subject, of course, but it engages people in an activist role instead of just thinking how depressing the news is today. People read about young girls who have acid thrown on them, about the rapes in India, and wonder, “What can I do?” So for last fall’s concert — we give two major programs each season — we raised money for the local Women’s Funding Alliance

The Seattle Labor Chorus also involves this combination of activist desires and wanting to sing, but the Peace Chorus is broader. Helen Lauritzen founded it in 1983 out of concern about the Cold War and led different delegations to the former Soviet Union to promote citizen diplomacy — a bridge made of singing, in contrast to the nuclear arms race at the time. And singing in a choir, which has no higher or lower class, richer or poorer, offers a unique way of feeling part of a community.

Why did you choose “Canto General” for this year’s spring concert? What’s the connection with the mission of the Peace Chorus?

For this concert, we’re reflecting on an important moment in history forty years ago and the poetic and musical distillation of a time and place that also involves our country. Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize for this monumental, encyclopedic work, which is made of over 230 poems. He died in 1973, very shortly after the day when there was supposed to have been a performance of the music Mikis Theodorakis had composed for it. 

Theodorakis had fled the totalitarian government of his native Greece and had become a friend of Neruda. But it was on September 11th — yes, a significant date then, too — that Chilean president Salvador Allende was overthrown by the coup that brought the dictator Pinochet to power. Theodorakis subsequently had to flee to Europe. This music wasn’t premiered in Chile until 20 years later.

You’re known as the U.S. expert when it comes to conducting this setting of "Canto General." We’ve all heard Theodorakis’s music on the soundtracks to famous films like "Zorba the Greek," but what makes this piece so outstanding?

A few weeks ago I was in a Greek restaurant in Anacortes. The woman who ran it looked at me with a big smile when I mentioned Theodorakis: “He’s the soul of Greece!” she said. He’s still alive (87 now) and was especially inspired by Neruda’s vision. "Canto General" celebrates the natural beauty of Latin America and its heroes and also includes a critique of the negative effects of Western corporate influence on this culture. Theodorakis chose 12 poems for his two-hour score, which I think is equivalent to one of the great choral masterpieces and illuminates the poem with emotional depth. 

When you hear 50 chorus members sing this poetry with the accompaniment of an orchestra of percussionists and other players, it takes on titanic proportions. And his Greek musical background makes for an interesting hybrid.

Theodorakis uses complicated Balkan rhythms with mixed meters, which are very challenging for the conductor and the singers. You feel like you’re in the middle of a blues club in Athens, listening to a Greek rembetika band. This is very festive, wide-awake, stirring, passionate music. Singers love performing this, but it’s very hard work: We started rehearsing back in November! 

How do you avoid being preachy when performing art that signifies your social commitment? What’s the appeal for music lovers who are wary of “politically engaged” art?

I think there’s an important difference between talking about politics today and using the mirror of history and art to try to reflect on the human condition. People don’t want to be told how to think or to vote.

At the same time, art should be thought-provoking. We want to look at the great human issues. These are questions that are always relevant: How do we treat each other? How do we have compassion for those who are suffering? How do we take responsibility for the actions of our government when they result in human suffering? Most art reflects some sort of political undercurrent of the time when it was created. These aren’t just issues that come from the headlines. 

Has your own work as a composer influenced your understanding of this music by Theodorakis and how to conduct it?

A few years ago, I wrote a work for the Peace Chorus based on the poetry of Langston Hughes — "Let America Be America Again" — about the waves of immigrants in shaping our country. I remember when I was composing, it became the most important thing in my life.

So, whenever I do another composer’s work — especially work by a living composer — I think of how, as a composer, I would want the conductor to take charge of my music with as much passion and insight as can be put into it. I try to draw on my own web of experience. It’s not enough just to know the notes, to sing in tune. The human voice is what makes us expressive. We’re not typing and texting, but singing to each other — and it’s from the essence of our being that we find that expression. 

If you go: The Seattle Peace Chorus sings "Canto General” by Mikis Theodorakis (a setting of Neruda’s poetry) on Saturday, June 1, at 7.30 pm at Town Hall,  1119 8th Ave., Seattle, 206 264-5532. There will also be a performance on Saturday, June 8, at 7.30 pm at Cleveland High School, 5511  15th Ave. S., Seattle. Tickets $18-$25.


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