Latham’s marches on to a new battlefield

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Chris Latham conducts “The Digger’s Requiem”. Photo: Peter Hislop

IF you thought Chris Latham, the first musical artist-in-residence at the Australian War Memorial and former “CityNews” Artist of the Year, had gone quiet of late, you’d have been right. 

For Latham, having dealt comprehensively with World War I through the lens of music in works like “The Gallipoli Symphony” and “The Diggers’ Requiem” as part of his project “The Flowers Of War” has now turned his attention to the Vietnam war for “The Vietnam Requiem”, and it’s been quite a learning curve.

That’s because Latham, a classically trained musician, instantly recognised that he was out of his depth musically in a war synonymous with great anthems from the worlds of rock and pop, so he’s had to call in the big guns.

“I don’t consider myself a pop music specialist, so I have made sure the creative team is filled with them,” he tells me when we catch up.

John Schumann will perform “I Was Only 19”.

He has, as a select group of Canberrans will see, “a quick taste of what we’re planning to do for ‘The Vietnam Requiem’” on December 2, when, at the Chapel of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, John Schumann will perform a new version of “I Was Only 19”, accompanied by Bill Risby, once described by Roland Peelman as “a seducer of the piano”.

“It’s always a risk when making a version of an iconic song to change things,” Latham says. 

“I thought we’d make a version that honoured the original but also break new ground… but the Vietnam vets consider it their anthem, so it’s important to get that song right.”

The same night will see Patricia Amphlett, “Little Patti”, singing the song taken from “The Deer Hunter” cavatina and made famous by Cleo Laine and John Williams as “You Are Beautiful”.

Latham is momentarily leaping across World War II to one nearer in time, because 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of our troops, promised by Prime Minister Billy McMahon and delivered by his successor, Gough Whitlam.

Apart from Iraq and Afghanistan which he considers to be “too close”, the Flowers of War project will eventually comprise “a full set” of musical tributes to those lost in war.

Others will be a “Misere” reflecting on the fall of Singapore and the Thai Burma Railway in 2022, a Korean War concert focusing on peacekeeping missions in 2023, a commemoration of the Holocaust in 2024 and in 2025 a World War II work, marking the war in the Pacific.

Latham is well aware that in moving into the territory of the Vietnam War he must be careful.

“I’m listening to people who were witnesses, and it’s a lot more complicated than most people think,” he says.

Latham was unable to travel to Vietnam this year because of COVID-19, but he’s been doing a great deal of research into historical records, looking at period films and photographs. He hasn’t seen present-day Vietnam but is very familiar with how it looked in the 1950s and 1960s, which will be shown through music and projected imagery with the full requiem, which will premiere at Llewellyn Hall in June next year.

“There’s a lot of new information in this requiem, it’s 50 years of knowledge and some will be hard for people to read,” he tells me.

The requiem will engage people from the pop, rock and jazz worlds along with orchestral musicians.

He’s been looking for works other than classical pieces, so they will be 12 pop songs in the first half and in the second half, the Requiem, commissioned by the AWM, comprising an overture and 12 movements by composers like Elena Kats-Chernin, Ross Edwards, Graeme Koehne and Andrew Schultz.

It will be performed by Van-Anh Vo on Vietnamese instruments, William Barton on didgeridoo, members of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, military musicians and choirs.

“There’ll be a rock band in the orchestra, which will be heavily dominated by plucking strings, and Vietnamese musical instruments, the Ðàn Tranh and the Dan Bau, so I think it will be a one-off,” he says.

The idea is to tell the stories of Australians and New Zealanders on the battlefield, the effects of war on the civilian and military medical staff and entertainers who toured, the protest movement, journalists and photojournalists, and the south Vietnamese refugees who fled.

It will be in Llewellyn Hall at 50 per cent capacity but performed twice, on June 5 and 6, perfectly timed, Latham says, for the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment’s 50th anniversary.

Tickets for “The Vietnam Requiem” will go on sale early in 2021, details at theflowersofwar.org

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