A message of hope from the horror of war

What: Aventa Ensemble: Strange News

When/where: Sunday, 8 p.m., Phillip T. Young Recital Hall (School of Music, MacLaurin Building, University of Victoria); pre-concert talk at 7:15

Tickets: $20, seniors and students $18. Online at aventa.ca

Kevin Bazzana – Time Colonist, Victoria BC

The Aventa Ensemble, the local chamber symphony devoted to modern music, performs Strange News, a 40-minute multimedia work with music by Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin.

According to Bill Linwood, Aventa’s co-founder, artistic director and conductor, Sunday’s performance will be “the biggest project in our history” — this from an ensemble that has staged two operas. Aventa has performed three other works by Wallin, but Strange News is in a different league because of its size and complexity and the ripped-from-the-headlines urgency of its subject: the tragic, intractable problem of Africa’s child soldiers.

Wallin, whose eclectic musical background is evident in his multifarious output, which includes various kinds of music theatre, conceived Strange News in collaboration with Josse De Pauw, a Belgian actor, writer and theatre director, who supplied the text and direction. In 2006, the two men visited Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo under the auspices of a Norwegian charitable organization, accompanied by a reporter and a cameraman from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. They recorded the recollections of former child soldiers along with other audio and video material, and auditioned young men in search of an actor, finally selecting Arthur Kisenyi, a Ugandan who was then just 16 (he will appear in Sunday’s performance).

The result of this visit was Strange News, which was first performed in 2007 in Oslo with a full orchestra. The version Aventa will perform, for 12 musicians, was created the following year. The work has now been performed more than a dozen times around Europe and North America (the Canadian première was given in Toronto in 2009).

Through the story of one boy (played by Kisenyi), Strange News explores the forces that draw young Africans into armed conflicts and allow them to commit terrible atrocities, but also the international aid programs and local rituals that together help rehabilitate child soldiers and restore them to their communities. It begins as a story about the horrors of war, yet ends with optimism and hope; what Linwood describes as “hyper-sensitized, over-the-top war music that invades the hall” yields to “redemption music” infused with traditional African song and dance.

Strange News includes instrumental music, speaking and singing, dancing and other staging, and pre-recorded audio and video — sound effects from four elevated speakers surrounding the audience and images projected onto a large screen (with CBC Radio journalist Khalil Akhtar making a cameo appearance as a newsreader). There is live electronics, too. The musicians are miked, their playing amplified in electronically processed form. Also, live video of Kisenyi’s performance is overlaid onto the pre-recorded images.

Five technicians will be at work in Sunday’s performance, seated within the hall. Wallin, making his first visit to Victoria, will be the computer operator controlling live electronics and pre-recorded sound files, joined by two sound engineers and two video operators.

According to Linwood, Aventa has been working on Strange News for a year and a half, dealing not only with “formidable technical requirements I’ve never seen before” but with plentiful logistical and administrative hurdles — Kisenyi’s visas, for instance.

(For more information about the piece, including video excerpts from the 2007 première, go to strange-news.info.)

Strange News will comprise the second half of Sunday’s concert, which will open with two performances by two Canadian composers: Strange Matter (2011), an octet by Zosha Di Castri, who is completing a doctorate at Columbia University in New York; and parc, a vibraphone concerto by Christopher Butterfield, an associate professor at the University of Victoria. The latter, which will receive its première, was commissioned by Aventa as a vehicle for percussionist Rick Sacks, who will travel from Toronto to play the solo part.

Next week, Aventa will embark on another of its regular tours, performing in Seattle, New York, Ottawa and Regina between March 10 and 15. The Di Castri and Butterfield pieces will appear on all four programs.

The New York and Ottawa concerts will include Strange News, and will involve organizations including various embassies and the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. That’s fitting, since Strange News is much more than just a piece of music. “The whole point of the work is literally to go to war against the issue of child soldiers,” Linwood says. “This is one thing we might do that could make a difference.”

© Copyright Times Colonist

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