William Tecumseh Sherman put it best with the oft’ quoted line, “War is hell.” But war is more than that. It’s generally not reflected well or accurately in post-victory celebratory pieces, even including such classics as the score for the famous NBC series Victory at Sea, and older works, like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, are so remote in history and mood as to be almost irrelevant to contemporary warfare, with all its high-tech wonders. Still, the dead and maimed are just as dead and maimed as those who threw themselves into the Battle of the Bulge or Antietam or…. And we’ve not yet begun to touch on the personal, private hells that participants and their families and friends endure. It was personal and private hells that colored much of “Echoes of War,” a “multimedia” presentation heard in Hill Hall’s Room 107 (the band rehearsal room) on the evening of January 30. “Multimedia” was a bit of a misnomer, since the show involved only slides, with Picasso’s Guernica serving to mark the start and end of the event’s three sections. Those sections were called “Duty: The Call to War,” “The Battlefield: Warriors,” and “Aftermath: Spiritual Rejuvenation.” They covered the ground, more or less, although this writer’s personal experiences – and the after-action recollections of his shipmates – lead him to think that “spiritual rejuvenation” can, in some cases, take a lifetime – or longer.

The presenters were soprano Terry Rhodes, mezzo-soprano Ellen Williams, narrator John Creagh, pianist Jane Hawkins, and media specialist John Kincheloe. Rhodes is a mainstay of UNC’s voice department, Hawkins is a Duke faculty artist, and the others are affiliated with Meredith College. Rhodes and Williams are also a well-known duo who have made frequent appearances in the Triangle and beyond and who have recorded several admirable CDs, from one of which several numbers were taken for this program. The format involved short narrations from various sources that bracketed diverse musical selections. Some might have been expected, while others were surprises. By and large, this was not a rah-rah evening, although there was a touch of that. For the most part, it was an evening of sober, somber reflection that admirably supported the program’s title and, presumably, intent. It would be unfair to call it an anti-war evening, although if that’s the impression some attendees carried away, that’s ok. War is hell, and only part of the hell is combat-related. It’s hell for those who are left behind, hell for those who give their all, and hell for those who live to reflect on it, who must hear those echoes….

The first part was, mostly, gentle and reflective of times long past – readings of works by Howard Nemerov juxtaposed with Wilfred Owen (whose poems form the core of Britten’s War Requiem), Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, and the famous Civil War “Letter from Sullivan Ballou” (from which the truly heart-wrenching finale was, alas, omitted). The music ranged from a Catalonian folksong to a song by Butterworth (who died in The War to End All Wars) to Ives’ “Tom sails away” to contemporary pieces by Argento and Rorem. Only Loesser’s “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” brightened the gloom, briefly.

In part two, Mark Twain’s “War Prayer,” Randall Jarrell’s notes on a gunner in a bomber, and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” (recited, not sung) encased songs by Barber, Rorem, and Stephen Jaffe. Rorem’s setting of Langston Hughes’ words figured in part one, but here, the text was by Walt Whitman, whose accounts of the Civil War’s horrors are among the most gruesome and compelling in our literature. Jaffe’s “Blood Stains” from Fort Juniper Songs (premiered and recorded by Rhodes and Williams), was the first of two excerpts from what may well be the Duke-based composer’s most moving contribution to date.

Part three brought words by Wislawa Szymborska (“After the war, someone has to clean up…”), Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Pablo Neruda. After another Jaffe song (“Light Casualties”), Richard Pearson Thomas’ “Clear midnight” (based on Whitman in a reflective mood), and John Corigliano’s “Forever young” brought the program to a close.

Creagh’s contributions were soft-spoken and often understated – models of their kind, given the material. Hawkins was superb, tailoring her supportive role admirably to the singers’ heartfelt interpretations. Kincheloe’s video contributions encompassed many wartime scenes plus cemeteries and even part of an Army manual; these enhanced the moods but were projected on the back wall of the room, high above the action, so it was necessary to make some effort to partake of them. The vocalists were all over their “space” in ways that brought home the composers’ intentions and conveyed the words with directness and clarity. At one point, for example, Williams came within about eight feet of her audience, almost whispering the lines on a thin thread of vocal support. This was powerful stuff, delivered with amazing sensitivity and directness. Some of the horror was conveyed. Some of the anguish attendant upon waiting, the dread that grips one in the cold hours before dawn, the uncertainty, and the self-doubts were conveyed, too.

There was applause for the artists, albeit somewhat muted. This was not a program to cheer, except perhaps after the fact – for the courage it took to mount it, for the effort that went into it, for the lingering impact it created. Reflections and echoes of war were indeed conveyed. For some in attendance, the thoughts dredged up may not have been altogether welcome. Ghosts linger for many vets, many survivors. This concert wasn’t “pretty” in any sense of the word. But it was important. War is hell.

The program will be repeated at Duke on February 4. See our Triangle calendar for details. Take tissues if you’ve got a soft heart.