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Music and lyrics: How a choral ode to the sacrifice of soldiers and their families was born

St. Louis Women's Hope Chorale
The St. Louis Women's Hope Chorale. "Hope" was recently added to the organization's title, standing for harmony, optimism, philanthropy and empowerment.

When Leanne MagnusonLatuda originally thought about conducting a piece about soldiers’ trials during and after war for her organization’s yearly gala, she hesitated.

“Initially, I was concerned about the PTSD being the theme of our gala,” said Latuda. “That didn’t seem to fit that well.  And yet we all said ‘This is so important, we have to figure out a way to make this work,’ because we want to raise awareness about this. How can we not get into the ugly aspects of that but bring it around to the positive point of view and raise awareness of the problems but also celebrate all the good that happens because of the work these people do?”

Latuda is the conductor and artistic director of the St. Louis Women’s Hope Chorale, an organization which tackles difficult social justice topics in their concerts regularly. Composer and The 442s’ pianist Adam Maness had previously expressed interest in such a topic after being approached by the grandson of a Chorale board member.

And so, “Theater of HOPE” was born…except, not exactly. While Maness had ideas for general shapes of each movement and ideas for spots to emphasize, he was missing a critical element of chorale music: the lyrics.

“The majority of the piece is from the perspective of a family member of a serviceperson, particularly of a mother and I didn’t feel qualified to write anything like that,” said Maness. “I’ve known Katy [Miller] for so long, she was actually the maid of honor at my wedding, and she was the first person I thought of to write the text for me. I love her poetry and I thought she would do a great job, and she did.”

Katy Miller is a therapist who formerly worked in hospice. She uses poetry in her therapy and is a poet herself. This was her first experience writing poetry to be set to music.

“My first hat that I wear is a social worker,” Miller said. “I’m a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. So this whole new experience, aside from writing poetry and having it published, was pretty amazing. I started [writing] because working in home hospice, I wrote a lot about my experience. It was a powerful experience. Now that I’m in private practice, I probably just write about what inspires a lot of us, being a mom, being a woman in general, I’ve been writing a lot about housework, because I’ve been doing a lot of it.”

The end result? A four-movement chorale ode to honor the sacrifice of soldiers and families, and bring attention to the myriad issues each face away, at home and upon return. The piece blends poetry, minimalism, American folk and even gospel styles.

“The first movement is energetic, with a repetitive and driving pulse,” Latuda said. “It feels instrumental. Not typical of choral music. It is melodic but it has this energy—it’s fiery and clips along.”

Latuda continued, saying that the second movement, “Theater of the Night,” is magical.

You can imagine yourself being in the desert if you were a soldier, if you were stationed somewhere and you're lying awake at night with your own thoughts, and you're looking up at the stars and you're thinking about what's at home...

  “Honestly, it feels like you can hear the crickets,” Latuda. “You can imagine yourself being in the desert if you were a soldier, if you were stationed somewhere and you’re lying awake at night with your own thoughts, and you’re looking up at the stars and you’re thinking about what’s at home, and the people whom you miss and your life that’s going on without you because you’re in the service.”

This movement was influenced by a close family friend of Miller’s who had served in the Gulf War and sent her in-depth reflections and thoughts about his service.

The third movement comes from a mother’s perspective, questioning if her child is safe and if and when they come home, who will they be? This movement transitions into the fourth, which comes from the soldiers’ point of view.

One of the driving forces behind this piece is to get society behind our veterans too, no matter what your political view.

“It is a thank you to people who have been waiting at home,” Latuda said. “One of the driving forces behind this piece is to get society behind our veterans too, no matter what your political view.  These people come home sometimes with problems and difficulties and we have to support them.”

The piece will be performed for the first time in its entirety at the Saint Louis Women’s Hope Chorale’s gala concert on Friday, Oct. 16. Erin Bode, The 442s and the St. Louis Women’s Hope Chorale will all perform separate sets and then join together at the end for the 15-minute premiere of “Theater of Hope.”

“This is what I came up with my brilliant moment driving in the car going home [after hearing the rehearsal]: It’s like Adam asked me for a piece of clay and it’s like ‘Katie you have some good clay, let me have that clay’ and then the music molds the words into totally different shapes,” said Miller. “It sounds really different reading the words than hearing words with music.”

Related Event

What: Saint Louis Women's Hope Chorale Presents "Theater of HOPE" Gala Concert
When: Fri., Oct. 16 at 7:00 p.m.
Where: Link Auction Galleries, 5000 Washington Place, St. Louis, MO 63108 
More Information.

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer, and Kelly Moffitt. The show is sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.    

Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.