First came composer William Walton’s Spitfire, an orchestral evocation of the British WWII fighter plane. Then came Bohuslav Martin’s Thunderbolt P-47, which gave an American fighter its musical due. And now there’s Karl Osterland’s Liberator, a choral anthem for the B-24 heavy bomber, commissioned by the Ypsilanti Community Choir for its thirtieth-anniversary spring concert on May 2 (see Events).
Though Osterland has since moved on to become music director and organist at Detroit’s Trinity Lutheran Church, he was the Ypsilanti Community Choir’s “first accompanist thirty years ago,” he recalls. “Denise Zellner was the founding director, and we had worked together at Musical Youth International and spent summers touring with high school students–which builds quite a bond, let me tell you!”
Ariel Toews-Ricotta has led the choir since Zellner’s death in 2006. “They contacted me last year because I’d done an arrangement of the spiritual “Rise Up, Shepherd,” and they asked to use it at their Christmas concert,” explains Osterland. “I attended, and we got talking, and though we had not had any contact since the mid-eighties, we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary with a new commission?'”
At first, he recalls, the group “didn’t know exactly what they were after. I thought it might be appropriate to use local poetry, but I went through a lot of local poetry at the Ypsilanti District Library, and none of it grabbed me. While I was there, I got sidetracked to Ypsilanti’s Willow Run bomber plant. It was such a huge thing.”
Literally huge: Henry Ford’s eighty-acre factory with its mile-long assembly line turned out 8,865 of the so-ugly-it’s-cute B-24 heavy bomber that helped win the war against fascism. Fascinated and inspired, Osterland went back to the choir with the idea. “Initially, there were concerns about glorifying war,” he says. “But when we talked about it, we decided it had potential.”
Osterland’s solution is simple but elegant. “The piece is in two sections. One section is mechanical and is supposed to sound like the assembly line … After that, there’s another section that talks about planes leaving and soaring into the air, bearing the hopes and dreams of the people.
“It sounds idealized, but it’s true,” says Osterland, whose day job is president of Ypsilanti’s FasTemps staffing agency. “There was a sense of unity of purpose in people during World War II, and that’s embodied in what the plant put together in such a short amount of time.”