Director of The Vietnam Requiem, Christopher Latham, who is the Australian War Memorial’s musical artist-in-residence, conceived the idea for this Requiem to help deal with the sadness of the Vietnam War and the aftermath that still exists for so many today.

The Vietnam Requiem. Photo © Peter Hislop

The Vietnam Requiem is a large-scale work that includes popular songs with commissioned pieces of music by Graeme Koehne, Elena Kats-Chernin, Andrew Schultz, Ross Edwards, Kim Cunio and Chris Latham himself, plus a piece by Peter Sculthorpe.

In two acts, titled Songs of the Vietnam War and The Vietnam Requiem, this monumental work lasted over three hours, crossing musical genres to include original compositions, pop songs of the Vietnam War plus later protest songs, and re-workings of other pieces to create something on a scale perhaps unheard anywhere.

The musicians came from across Australia with instrumentalists from the Canberra Symphony Australia, Australian and New Zealand RAN, Army and RAAF Defence Force Bands, the ANU Chamber Orchestra, the Brisbane Chamber Choir and the over 60-strong combined youth choir.

Representatives from the Vietnamese community and a line-up of musicians and singers included Little Pattie, John Schumann, Normie Rowe, Mark Williams, Nina Ferro and Phan Văn Hưng, who was dressed in a traditional outfit and sang and played a 2000-year-old Vietnamese Đông Sơn bronze drum. Joining them were William Barton on didgeridoo, arranger Bill Risby on keyboards, Paul Goodchild on trumpet, Minh Le Hoang and Slava Grigoryan on guitars, among others.

Many of the songs in the first act took audience members back to the time of the Vietnam War. New Zealand singer Mark Williams opened with He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. The emotion of this song let the audience know what they were in for.

Normie Rowe belted out a rocking version of We Gotta Get out of This Place. But when John Schumann from Redgum sang his smash hit, I Was Only 19, with his voice sounding just like it did when it was released back in 1983, that hit home more than any other song. Little Pattie had several songs and her version of What a Wonderful World melted the audience.

In the heart of The Vietnam Requiem beats a strong message of hope, remembrance and forgiveness, and this was clearly heard in the second act. While there is not enough space to do every section justice, several works affected deeply.

Peter Sculthorpe’s In Memoriam arranged by Latham, included images and stories of the Vietnam War splashed up on two large screens behind the orchestra. These added another emotional layer to this immense concert. Sopranos Susannah Lawergren and Rachel Mink sang in many pieces. Together, their voices cut through. But it was in Mink’s solos with her high powerful voice that raised the emotional experience to another level.

Elena Kats-Chernin’s two works, Lacrimosa, for the Healers and Calamitas: the Fall of Saigon both stood out. In Calamitas, this loud, forceful, short piece, dynamic and thrilling in its scope and volume, hit the audience with a full-frontal assault of sound. It gradually died away, but its tension remained.

The Coming of Peace by Ross Edwards for choir and orchestra was something else. Recognisable as the music of Edwards, it also owned a deep sensuality under a sound of utter despair.

Capturing the tension of a squad on patrol during the Vietnam War, Doppler Patrol by Andrew Schultz, with accompanying images and a soundtrack of wildlife in a forest created an impact that pushed the audience into this scary and most dangerous place.

The Boat Peoples’ Prayer, by Graeme Koehne was a gentle sad work. It reflected the tragedy of these powerless people who had to set to sea to escape the aftermath of the war. Its message of making us all strong after such a devastating and torturous war encapsulated what the The Vietnam Requiem is all about.

For the final works that completed this monumental experience, which left this writer feeling drained, wiser and hopeful, William Barton on didgeridoo started to usher in the combined youth choirs all carrying multicoloured candles. They assembled in front of the stage, led by Stephen Leek. As they sang, the whole orchestra, the band, the singers and the other choirs all came together. They filled the hall with a song of peace that proved this concept of hope that Latham has brought to light completely justifies the enormity of his vision.

The Last Post, played on guitar with Barton on didgeridoo, sounded the end of a monumental experience that will stay in my memory for all my life. After this breathless wall of sound gradually died away, there was silence from everyone – lasting for almost one minute, it said as much as the whole concert. The standing ovation and the long, loud applause from every audience member rang on and on.

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