Finding a place in San Francisco to stage battle hymns was not easy -- Fort Mason, Fort Point, Pier 70, Theater Artaud, and numerous building in the Presidio were consid-ered -- but location wasn't the biggest challenge. David Lang's emotionally charged production requires a professional troupe of modern dancers and at least 150 choral singers willing to be costumed and choreographed (this performance will feature nearly 200 voices, from Volti, the San Francisco Choral Society, the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, and Ancora, in addition to the Leah Stein Dance Co.).
Because of its complexity, and in spite of the substantial appeal of its Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, battle hymns has been presented only once before. Written for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the piece incorporates the words of Abraham Lincoln and soldier Sullivan Ballou (Ballou's eloquent letter home features prominently in Ken Burns' documentary) as well as the lyrics of tragic wartime minstrel Stephen Foster -- he gave us "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown Races," but it is his "Beautiful Dreamer" that Lang brings to chilling effect here, as child singers wander the battlefield amidst the dead and dying. In 2008, Lang won over the world with his surprisingly intimate The Little Match Girl Passion, written for a quartet of singers with small handheld percussion, but, as co-founder of Bang on the Can, he is no stranger to the strident and explosive. With battle hymns, he concentrates the power of both. Only one-tenth of the pavilion's capacity will be sold, making this theater of war very personal.
SF Choral Society and Volti present battle hymns on April 28 at 3 p.m.; also April 26 at 8 p.m. and April 27 at 3 and 8 p.m. at Kezar Pavilion, 755 Stanyan St., S.F. Admission is $30-$50; call 221-5590 or visit sfchoral.org.