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Review: An aural and oral Newfoundland history lesson

From left, Nancy Dahn, Timothy Steeves and Amy Collyer-Holmes perform with playwright Robert Chafe at the D.F. Cook Recital Hall at Memorial University Dec. 8.  — Submitted photo
From left, Nancy Dahn, Timothy Steeves and Amy Collyer-Holmes perform with playwright Robert Chafe at the D.F. Cook Recital Hall at Memorial University Dec. 8. — Submitted photo

Tuckamore Festival’s 'What Was Needed Most' off to complete mini tour

Halfway through its 2017 tour, the Tuckamore Festival’s “What Was Needed Most” made its St. John’s debut on Dec. 8.

The festival, which was founded in 2001, “inspires, excites, provokes, moves, teaches, and mentors” music enthusiasts, especially those with a taste (and an ear) for chamber music.

Duo Concertante (Timothy Steeves and Nancy Dahn), and cellist Amy Collyer-Holmes performed music written by local composers and Tuckamore Festival alumni (Duane Andrews, Bekah Simms, and Aiden Hartery) in the chamber style, a subgenre of classical music composed for smaller groups of musicians.

Not just a musical performance, this particular presentation gave an oral history lesson as well, recalling memories of the pre-Confederation era, gleaned from residents across the province by local playwright Robert Chafe.

The show began with an audio clip of a raucous debate, a back-and-forth on Confederation.

The idea of joining Canada was an oft-debated topic in the 1940s, a matter that elicited strong opinions from the island’s residents. While many were pro-confederation, others held staunch anti-confederate views, perceiving the added title of “Canadian” as a threat to their strong identity.

This exploration of identity was a theme throughout the show, as Chafe delivered a series of thought-provoking monologues that encapsulated the many conflicting views of Newfoundlanders at that time.

The first monologue recalled childhood memories of the struggle so many encountered every day, as they tried to thrive and prosper in outport communities, losing so much and so many, on this harsh and unforgiving rock.

The times were hard, and Confederation promised to change that. Supporters believed wholeheartedly in the movement, while skeptics held their doubts. It seems like each side was simply shouting over the other, neither being heard. Decades later, I could hear them now, all of them at once, their voices distinguishable, their stories profound.

In his monologues, Chafe explored pre- and post-Confederation Newfoundland, presenting his gathered information in varying dialects and accents, telling the stories that were told to him by those who could still recall the country of Newfoundland, and the end of its independence. They were children in 1949, offering Chafe “childlike glimpses” into a seemingly foreign land that would soon become the 10th province.

With such an intense and interesting subject matter at hand, the accompanying music seemed secondary, simply overshadowed by the power of Chafe’s presentations.

I felt the instrumentals did encapsulate some of the complex emotions floating around the D.F. Cook Recital Hall, but I should admit now that I have a very limited knowledge of contemporary classical and chamber music.

My untrained ear just wanted to get back to the storytelling. I don’t remember learning much about Confederation in school, and I was hungry for this first-hand knowledge of a Newfoundland I never knew.

The artful education ended with a particularly touching monologue, extracted from Chafe’s own father, who was 10 years old in 1949. The times were hard, the winters even harder, and regardless of personal opinions, joining Canada improved the lives of Newfoundlanders province-wide, the pros of Confederation outweighing the cons.

One shining example is a pair of fur-lined boots, purchased with help from the newly implemented “baby bonus” for a little boy allergic to his wool socks — because it was “What Was Needed Most.”


Remaining tour dates:

Thursday Dec. 14t, 8 p.m. - Grenfell Theatre, Corner Brook
Friday Dec. 15, 8 p.m. - Arts and Culture Centre, Stephenville
Sunday Dec. 17, 2 p.m. - Lawrence O’Brien Arts Centre, Happy Valley-Goose Bay

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