Just Before the Battle

Just Before the Battle
Songs of Courage and Loss in Wartime

Just Before the Battle was born on Veterans Day, November 11th 2007 by a challenge. The challenge came from pastor Galen Guengerich of All Souls Unitarian Church during his sermon: "You each have a talent," he said, "something you can do to help our world."

As the sermon continued, I began thinking how so many people in this vast country, myself included, have no idea of the personal cost of war. Not since the Civil War has a battle been fought on our mainland. Few of us in this generation have served in the military or have had to see a loved-one go off to fight. I thought of the ease with which people turn conversation away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how unreachable we make ourselves to empathy for service men and women, and for their families.

Familiar and poignant tunes of wartime began to play in the background of my thinking. During the ensuing months, I spent my spare time in the Lincoln Center music library, looking for songs that would touch people at a subliminal, personal level. I wanted the songs to make the hearer think, "This could be me," "That could be my son."

The most compelling songs came from various musical genres. From Stephen Foster, whose beautiful lyrics cut to the heart of personal sacrifice and suffering during the Civil War, the upbeat ditties of George M. Cohan during World War I, the poignant love songs of the Big Band greats, to the magnificent settings of immortal war poems by Charles Ives and Kurt Weil - this disparate batch of great music needed to come together in one program.

Thanks to my eclectic interest and experience in different music styles (my mother was a classical pianist, my father a cornet player in the Big Bands), I began talking with a few friends whose musical talent and opinions I highly respected. My first conversation was with Eric Frey, bassist with the Red Stick Ramblers. He loved the idea of weaving various musical styles into one fabric, and said yes before I really knew what the whole fabric would be! Next I talked with the great jazz singer Laurel Massé, then master teacher and cabaret artist Elizabeth Parrish. My friends were enthusiastic, and eagerly signed on to the project. Finally I asked for a consultation with Paul Trueblood, whose vast experience is legendary. I was grateful he agreed to see me, but never expected him to offer to be the pianist and music director. I was amazed.

The reservoir of creativity each artist brought to the project made work sessions exciting and organic. As the program continues to evolve, and new performers join our group, we have learned to adapt the arc of the show, the length of the program and the number of performers to venues of varying sizes. Every performance is new and profoundly rewarding, and the show has matured into a tightly woven, moving and entertaining experience for audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

One audience member, a 25-year veteran performer at the Metropolitan Opera wrote: "For me, it was a paradigm-shifting event, one of most moving performances I have ever seen. Never before had I expected to be drawn to songs about war. But these performers humanized for me an individual person's experience during wartime."