The art of history, sea to symphony

A wartime tragedy is retold as a part of Victoria and the Sea, a celebration of the connection between the city and the ocean

Members of Coleman Lemieux & Companie in Convoy PQ-17, which comes to Farquhar Auditorium Nov. 10.

Twelve years after two artists brought the little-known story of a Second World War tragedy to the Victoria stage, the composer behind the requiem had a chance to look back on their initial concept –  literally. Earlier this year while preparing for the Maritime Museum’s exhibit on Convoy PQ-17, a botched marine supply mission in the Arctic Ocean that saw 24 of 35 merchant ships sunk by German U-boats and aircraft bombers, Christopher Butterfield rediscovered his original manuscript for the work, which will be performed Nov. 10 at the University of Victoria.

“I didn’t think I had one,” said Butterfield, an associate music professor at the University of Victoria. “I thought the whole thing was written down on scraps of paper. It was fascinating for me to see that original plan and then to see what resulted from that musically.”

What resulted was a symphony and dance piece choreographed by Bill Coleman, the son of a Convoy PQ-17 survivor, that has been performed for audiences as far away as Montreal and St. Petersburg, Russia.

“In Russia they take very seriously the history of the war,” Butterfield said. “It’s very serious business. Here, this kind of work is more uncommon, to put it mildly. You don’t often go to see large commemorative piece for wartime episodes with dance, chorus and orchestra.”

Yet the response from veterans In Canada has been strong, and positive.

“For them it opens up very real memories, things that perhaps they don’t think about that much, or that are difficult to remember. For people who haven’t experienced wartime, maybe they see it more as a spectacle.”

Convoy PQ-17 is very much Coleman’s personal story, one he uncovered gradually given his father’s reluctance to speak openly of the disaster.

“It’s not talked about in the same way as you talk about Dieppe or something like that,” Butterfield said. “The convoy was perfectly safe but they got bad advice from the British admiralty. … And Joe Coleman was on one of these boats and came out of it alive. He said he didn’t want to be saved anymore. He ended up on one of those islands on the Arctic circle, and was eventually saved and repatriated.”

Butterfield’s father also served in the war as a merchant marine in the Indian Ocean. Like Coleman senior, he kept that part of his life private.

“The fact that we both had fathers who had experienced life at sea in the wartime, it makes that poignant connection.”

Butterfield, a self-described stylistic mongrel, whose background includes performance art, sees Convoy PQ-17 as a perfect example of that medium, a sort of time-based piece, in  position between disciplines, he said.

“Music is used to manipulate emotions and I’ve never really done that,” he said.” I won’t say this piece doesn’t appeal to the emotions; it’s more out of an unconscious sense of bringing materials together and hoping they work.”

Butterfield has conducted Convoy PQ-17 three times in Victoria. This Sunday, he’ll be a part of the audience while Victoria Symphony maestra Tania Miller conducts the piece, alongside a performance by dance troupe Coleman Lemieux & Companie and the Victoria Philharmonic Choir at UVic’s Farquhar Auditorium.

“I’m just thrilled she’s doing it,” Butterfield said. “Maybe I’ll finally hear it done right.”

The performance is slated for 2:30pm Nov. 10. Tickets are $20 or $15 for students, available at tickets.uvic.ca, in person or 250-721-8480.

The Maritime Museum’s exhibit Convoy PQ-17: The Art of History continues through Feb. 28. Events are a part of the Victoria Symphony’s Victoria and the Sea, a celebration of the connection between the city and the ocean. The festival begins Nov. 8 at 7:30pm with A Tribute to the Sea: A Concert by the Naden Band at the McPherson Playhouse. Full events listings and ticket information available at victoriasymphony.ca/sea.

– with files form Daniel Palmer

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