In the fall of 1996, I joined teachers, parents, students, and alumni at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium for a high school football game. The stadium hummed with an expectancy that indicated this was no ordinary match-up; this was the Bruce-Mahoney game. Played between two cross-town rival high schools since the 1940s, for a trophy named in memory of two alumni who lost their lives in World War II, the Bruce-Mahoney binds generations of San Franciscans together in history and community.
For many years, the two schools played their basketball games in the adjacent Kezar Pavilion, and I could easily recall the din of squeaky sneakers, referees’ whistles, and screaming spectators as I took my seat on the cold, hard bleachers for the West Coast premiere of David Lang’s battle hymns. Presented by Volti and the San Francisco Choral Society on April 26, 27, and 28, battle hymns benefited from its setting in ways that no one who created the production likely imagined. During the performance, I felt connected to all the San Franciscans who had cheered and lamented the wins and losses played by the city’s youth in that very building. It’s an old gymnasium, no stranger to passion and commitment, and the 75-minute, soul-baring performance of battle hymns seemed right at home there.
Lang’s large-scale reflection on war comprises five sections, or songs, three of which use Stephen Foster lyrics as their basis. The production in San Francisco began with a foreshadowing of the third section of the work. A sole member of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir emerged from underneath the empty section of bleachers where she had been hiding and sang in pure tone: “I’ll be a soldier.” She was then joined in overlapping succession by other young choristers scattered around the gymnasium. The children’s voices bloomed in the austere space, the unisons and perfect intervals creating a layered bed of diatonic harmonies.
The acoustics of the room worked in favor of Lang’s post-minimalist harmonic language; occasionally, though, the blended sound obscured the text. Volti and the San Francisco Choral Society combined to form a darkly uniformed corps of more than 100 singers, and as they sang—relentlessly, in precise homophony—a litany of alphabetized fragments from a Civil War soldier’s letter to his wife, I was grateful for the lone tenor (David Kurtenbach) walking the perimeter of the space and singing the same text fragments out of sync with his cohorts. His enunciation was crisp and clear. Interweaving repetitions, used throughout battle hymns, allowed me to catch snippets of texts, even when they disappeared into the hypnotic musical fabric.
The second section of battle hymns is a setting of the lyrics to Stephen Foster’s “Was My Brother in the Battle?” (Lang’s version is titled “tell me.”) In the San Francisco production, the adult choir asserted its role as it often would, physically, forming two impenetrable rows diagonally across the performance space. Over an insistent ground bass phrase, “tell me,” the choir asked questions about a soldier’s fate, “did he struggle? did he fall?” The response was cruel consolation. Leah Stein’s dancers crossed their hands over their mouths in shades of mute grief, awful uncertainty, and the refusal to reply. At the end of “tell me,” the children’s choir assembled downstage, singing with their hands over their mouths in the same choreographic gesture as Stein’s dancers. Their vocalizations swelled into an ethereal sound reminiscent of crickets on a summer evening. This was one of battle hymns’ most powerful moments.
As a choral work, battle hymns could stand on its own as a concert piece (and at far less expense than the production I saw). Yet the choreography created by Leah Stein, who co-commissioned battle hymns for its premiere in 2009 in Philadelphia, helped extend the emotional pitch of the piece beyond the formality of concert music. As a dancer flexed and straightened her arm and wrist in semaphore-like movements, I felt compelled to try to understand her cryptic signals. Life and death seemed to depend on it. Moments later, the dancers crumpled randomly to the floor as if knocked from above by a great unseen hand. The choreographed activities—whether scrappy, contact-driven, or rhythmic—responded to the thematic content in ways that supercharged my own response to the work as a whole.
In “I’ll be a soldier,” battle hymns’ third section and a reprise of the opening, a portion of the audience was led to the center of the performance space. The stern-faced adult chorus members surrounded the “active audience” on three sides. Downstage, essentially sandwiched by two audiences, the children’s chorus seemed to play at lining themselves up in formation, while the dancers punctuated the spaces in between. The simplicity of Lang’s compositional language—warm, open choral harmonies, melodies descending the natural minor scale—was totally immersive; I felt myself becoming the “I” of the refrain, “I’ll be a soldier.” Who was a participant and who was an onlooker? Seeing the active audience in their contemporary street clothes through the scrim of dancers and children did not clarify matters. When the children collapsed to the floor, miming death, we all seemed equally responsible and helpless.
At the end of battle hymns, Lang’s setting of Stephan Foster’s “beautiful dreamer” renders the adult choir—the once-formidable corps—helpless. The chorus sang as if in slow motion, drawing vowels out to a point that distorted the syntax, erasing any similarity to Foster’s tune. The pure vocal tones were freely punctuated by whispers, gasps, and muttered repetitions of “beautiful dreamer, beautiful, beautiful.” Significantly, the performers wandered the entire space, no longer in any kind of regimented formation. They appeared shell-shocked, or transfigured, unified only in sound, not in body. The piece drew to a close as one member of the children’s chorus walked solemnly forward. Reluctant to break the spell, the audience sat in silence for several long minutes, a rare admission of their engagement in the shared experience.
I was bewildered and astonished sixteen years ago when that football game I attended ended in a tie. What, no overtime? But a draw it was, and with the other stunned teachers, parents, and students, I bundled myself against the chill fog and climbed the stadium steps in silence. Everyone was subdued, some quietly murmuring as they drifted across the parking lot. Our dispersion mirrored the final scene of battle hymns. The kids had fought a good fight, in honor of young men who had done the same before them, but no one had won. Resigned, all we could do was wander home. Mine is a provincial perspective, perhaps, but battle hymns in San Francisco was all the more poignant and powerful because of its site-specific echo of local history. I am hard-pressed to imagine it performed as successfully, in the Bay Area, anywhere else.