In Montreal, Robert Lepage is licking his wounds after having not one but two new “colour-blind” works cancelled over accusations of cultural appropriation and tone-deafness (SLAV proposed a mostly white cast to sing African slave music; Kanata, about residential schools, did not involve any Indigenous participants). Meanwhile, at Chamberfest on Tuesday night, Sounding Thunder: the Songs of Francis Pegahmagabow showed how collaboration should be done, and how successful the results can be when respect and listening are woven into the creative fabric.
Lepage believes that because suffering is universal, it gives him permission to adapt and generalize other people’s deeply personal and painful histories. Sounding Thunder works so well precisely because it puts the spotlight squarely on strong, eloquent First Nations voices sharing the story of one of their own heroes, partly in their own language. These voices are proud. They are raw. They do not absolve, forgive, or make soothing, we-are-the-world claims that it doesn’t matter who did what to whom because we’re really all brothers and sisters in heartache.
Sounding Thunder, with text by Ojibwe writer Armand Ruffo and music by Timothy Corlis, presents the life of Francis Pegahmagabow, a decorated Anishinaabe First Wolrd War sniper who became a vocal advocate and leader for his people after the war. His story is described in three acts: his childhood up to his enlisting; his feats during the war; and his political activism after his return.
Ruffo blends dry historical fact and military detail with poetic, mystical and spiritual elements that allude to Pegahmagabow’s traditional culture and belief system, his roots in clan and family, and the wild, watery beauty of his homeland near Parry Sound. (Sounding Thunder was spearheaded by James Campbell, the eminent clarinetist and artistic director of the Festival of the Sound, where the work received its world premiere earlier this month.)
Corlis’s score — for violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion — is cinematic and delicately expressive. Shimmering colours and dramatic tension are created through the use of various percussion instruments, spectacularly played by Beverley Johnston. There’s also a mournful theme in the trumpet (the excellent Guy Few), and a remarkable solo in the high register of the double bass (NACO principal Joel Quarrington).
As a contemporary composition, it’s also a little repetitive and sometimes falls into easy clichés, like bugle calls and snare drums during battle scenes. The piece runs a little over an hour, almost double the planned length. It could use some editing, especially in the first act; I would have liked to hear more about Pegahmagabow’s work as band chief and his later years.
Pegahmagabow is sensitively portrayed by the phenomenally charismatic Anishinaabe actor and award-winning playwright Waawaate Fobister. Jennifer Kreisberg, a Native American performer from the Tuscarora nation, lent her otherworldly, spine-tingling vocals to the role of the Deer Spirit Woman, a powerful, magical being that Pegahmagabow meets while hunting. Brian McInnes, Pegahmagabow’s great-grandson and author of his biography, provided measured narration. Conductor Larry Beckwith multitasked by playing several non-Indigenous roles.
Jodi Baker, First Nations singer and drummer, performed a prologue honouring the four directions. She also ended the piece with a traditional travelling song, gently sending “Peggy” on his final journey to the spirit world. The audience, which included many Indigenous guests, rose to their feet to sing along. It was spontaneous and authentically moving.
Before the main attraction, the ensemble played three movements from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, which celebrates its centenary this September, and conveniently scored for the same sextet. This wasn’t the cleanest performance I’ve heard, although Few and especially Johnston were standouts.
Due to Sounding Thunder’s length, a planned performance of Masques of Canada, a 2017 suite by the Alberta-based pianist and composer Glen Montgomery, was scratched.