It’s a miracle that Pablo Neruda’s “Canto General” was published at all.
In 1949, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet and leftist political luminary narrowly escaped arrest for his political leanings by fleeing his homeland on horseback through the Andes Mountains. He carried with him a copy of the unfinished manuscript, disguised by a false cover.
The collection of 255 poems, designed as a history of Spanish-speaking Latin America, is now considered his magnum opus. But if he had never made it through the mountains, “Canto General” might never have been published. But he did, and went on to collaborate with Greek musician Mikis Theodorakis to convert 12 of the book’s most memorable poems into choral music.
On two weekends (June 1 and 8), Seattle Peace Chorus pays homage to Neruda’s fantastic and controversial legacy by singing the Theodorakis adaptation of “Canto General.”
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There are about 50 singers in the chorus. For “Canto General,” three flutes, three guitars, a wide range of percussion, two pianos and a double bass will accompany the group. Three soloists will also join the choir for select pieces.
Local composer/conductor Fred West, who directs the group, led the chorus in the piece in 2004. He has also directed it for his other choral group, the City Cantabile Choir. West said the music fits neatly with the Peace Chorus’ goal to promote social equality through music.
“Pablo Neruda was a champion of Latin American culture,” West said. “He tried to lift up the spirits of people who are not powerful politically or monetarily. The common people — he wrote that piece for them.”
English translations of the poems exist, but the chorus chose to sing in Spanish, preserving the piece as Neruda and Theodorakis intended. This is a challenging move for the chorus; it contains only a handful of fluent Spanish speakers.
The group has been practicing rigorously since November to pronounce every syllable correctly.
One of the soloists, Alma Villegas, has gone the extra mile to make sure the singers “do the language justice.” She took recordings of rehearsals home and listened for inaccurate pronunciations, which she then shared with the group.
“I’m the only native speaker in the cast, so it’s an opportunity for me to help others out with the language,” she said.
Peace Chorus member Dale Rector, formerly a foreign-language teacher at Cleveland High School, helped coordinate the group’s next performance, on June 8 at Cleveland High.
“The chorus has always wanted to reach out educationally to youth,” Rector said. “At Cleveland particularly, an adult chorus coming in and singing a classical-type piece — that’s not something that would happen normally.”
In August, some Peace Chorus members will travel to Chile to perform parts of “Canto General” with local choral groups there. West said using music as a conduit between cultures is a key tenet of the Peace Chorus.
“It’s sort of our signature that we do some international travel every several years,” he said. “Helen Lauritzen started [the chorus] in 1983 to use artistic diplomacy to counteract the hostility of the Cold War.”
Joseph Sutton-Holcomb: firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @analogmelon