Arts / Bells chime for peace in ‘Diggers’ Requiem’

Chris Latham with vibraphone player Veronica Bailey and the Nara Peace Bell

SIXTY-TWO thousand bells will peal out in Llewellyn Hall during the mighty conclusion to Chris Latham’s “The Diggers’ Requiem” this October, a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

62,000 is, of course, the number of Australian souls lost in the “Great” War, “The War To End All Wars”—World War I—and this morning at Nara Peace Park, Latham was on hand with vibraphone player Veronica Bailey to give a taste of this final “blaze of luminous sound”, with Canberra’s peace Peace Bell (the Canberra Rotary Peace Bell), one of 24 around the world, playing a part.

An earlier version of the Requiem (minus one movement) was performed to five standing ovations in Amiens, just before Anzac Day, by Australian and European soloists, the French Orchestre de Picardie and the German Jenaer Philharmonic.

Latham and “Flowers of War” project chair David Whitney praised the enormous support received from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Australian War Memorial, (where Latham is composer-in-residence) the Australia Council for the Arts, the ACT government and private donors.

The Requiem was conceived by Latham to fall into 12 movements commemorating battles on the Western Front, such as Fromelles, Pozières, Bapaume, Bullecourt, 3rd Ypres and Passchendaele, Villers-Bretonneux, Amiens, Péronne, Bellenglise, Montbrehain and the piercing of the Hindenburg line. The final movement composed by Latham is a universal prayer for peace.

Movements have also been composed by Nigel Westlake, Elena Kats-Chernin, Richard Mills, Graeme Koehne, Ross Edwards and Andrew Schultz.

The one-off Canberra concert will be performed by the newly-formed Australian War Memorial Orchestra and Choir with the Band of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, as well as seven Australian and international soloists, such as Canberra cellist David Pereira and tenor Tobias Cole. Twenty-eight young artists selected from across Australia with French or German ancestry or WWI family connections, will be hosted by Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres and will perform, observe and debate the issues arising from “The Diggers’ Requiem”.

This morning Latham placed emphasis on the story around which Nigel Westlake’s great work “The Glass Soldier” was based, the real-life story of artist Nelson Ferguson, who though largely blinded during the war, returned to make glass windows until a corneal transplant plant allowed him to travel “from darkness to light”, as Latham put.

Westlake’s movement, “I Was Blinded, But Now I See”, captured the chief idea embedded in “The Diggers’ Requiem”, which, Latham said, would be a story of healing. It is his hope that the Requiem will be performed “as long as we have Anzac Day”.

Latham lamented not just the losses of the 62,000 Australians, but the loss of innocence as a nation, arguing that after WWI, pragmatism replaced idealism in national ethos. The Great War, he said, “was supposed to buy a lasting peace, but the diplomats lost the final battle”.

But in an alchemical process, transforming sorrow, the Requiem, he hoped, would empower peace.

“The Diggers’ Requiem”, Llewellyn Hall, Saturday, October 6 only. Bookings to ticketek.com

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