Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble to Premiere Helgeson’s Snow Requiem


by Mike Telin

In his book, The Children’s Blizzard, author David Laskin chronicles the events of January 12, 1888. That morning the temperatures in the upper Midwest were unseasonably warm, so warm in fact that children walked to school without coats, hats or gloves. That afternoon one of the deadliest winter storms in U.S. history left thousands stranded as they attempted to make their way home. By the next morning, the storm had claimed more than 500 casualties, many of them school children.

This horrifying day in history is the inspiration behind composer Aaron Helgeson’s latest work. On Friday, March 6 at 8:00 pm in the Oberlin Conservatory’s Warner Concert Hall, and on Saturday, March 7 at 2:00 pm in Gartner Auditorium at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Timothy Weiss will lead the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble in world premiere performances of Helgeson’s Snow Requiem for solo violin, solo soprano, 16-voice choir, strings, percussion & harp. The program also includes Sofia Gubaidulina’s Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings featuring Ben Roidl-Ward as soloist, and Jonathan Harvey’s Wheel of Emptiness.

During a conversation in his studio, Helgeson, who is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Composition at Oberlin as well as an alum, said that the gestation of the work was quite long. “It started when I was finishing my doctoral dissertation in 2012. I felt I had mastered my toolbox in terms of composing, and I began to think about developing a project that would allow me to apply those tools to subject matter that might be of interest to people outside of the new music community. At the time, I was reading a lot of creative non-fiction, a genre that is an interest of mine, when I came across David Laskin’s book, The Children’s Blizzard.

Although Snow Requiem is not a programmatic work, Helgeson said that Laskin’s detailed writing about the event did have a direct effect on his piece. “It was a blizzard that saw wind speeds of up to 80 mph, single-day temperature drops of as much as 55 degrees fahrenheit, and snow drifts of 10-20 feet, all over the course of 8 hours.

“At the time, all of the weather forecasting was done via the Military Signal Corps and a lot of enterprises had paid them off in order to get weather information early. Among those enterprises were the railroads, and because they had received advance notice of the storm, they shut down early, which meant that many people could not get out of the region. Most of the people in the area were Norwegian, German and Ukrainian homesteaders, and Laskin talks about the folk music and the hymns that were sung. He also recreates the storm and the experience of the children of the people in the region. There is a particularly gruesome chapter about a group of boys who were stuck in the storm for hours, and their experiences during the different stages of hypothermia.”

While spending a few months teaching in Washington D.C., Helgeson spent time at the National Archives researching weather data and the homesteaders, a topic that was of personal interest to him. “My great-great grandfather came from Oslo during the Homestead Act and settled in that region, so there is a personal aspect for me. I wanted to create a project that I could really sink my teeth into, and this seemed to provide me with what I was looking for. 

Read the rest of the article at ClevelandClassical.com here.

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