‘A Child’s Requiem’

MARQUETTE – It was really a combination of things that inspired 23-year-old Thomas LaVoy to write “A Child’s Requiem,” a work that’s debuting Dec. 14 as a collaboration between the Marquette Symphony Orchestra and the Marquette Senior High School Redmen Chorale.

Commissioned by the MSO, LaVoy teamed with a very special liberist – his mother, Esther LaVoy Barrington under her pen name Esther Margaret Ayers – to write the piece that honors the centennial of the Italian Hall Disaster in Calumet.

During the September of his junior year at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., LaVoy was visiting his father in Philadelphia, enjoying backyard grilling. Suddenly a cracking noise and smoke in the air was followed by people in front of the building shouting that the house was on fire.

“It was an electrical fire, from what we were able to learn,” LaVoy said. “The big issue was my dad and stepmom rescue animals. We rushed in to get them out but there were a number of cats trapped on the third floor, where the fire started, and it was already too late to get to them.”

The fire department arrived and worked to put the blaze out, but between the smoke and water damage, the structure was deemed unlivable.

“After the fire, they let us back into the house to find the animals,” LaVoy said. “Some we found dead but some were huddled together, hiding in unexpected places. I would come upon them and they’d look at me and they looked like frightened children.”

For a long time afterward, LaVoy had nightmares about the smell of smoke and the look in those cats’ eyes.

Starting at age 4, LaVoy had been studying music with his mother, who is a well-known piano instructor as well as a poet.

“I was born and raised in Marquette and while I am here, am still in that same house on Hewitt (Street),” he said. “The lake has been an ever-present force in my life. It was really a creative atmosphere to grow up in.

By age 6, he’d written his first piece in collaboration with his mother.

“We have a unique relationship, a mom and son who do these collaborations,” LaVoy said. “I kept going with writing and here I am today, doing that for a living.”

The Christmas after the fire, LaVoy and his mother wrote a Christmas carol, just for their family.

“It started accumulating, the ideas,” he said. “Then I remembered the Italian Hall Disaster, when someone yelled ‘fire’ when there wasn’t one.”

In that event, 73 people, many of them children, were crushed to death on the stairs of the hall in Calumet after that false fire report and the panic that ensued.

“I knew the centennial was coming up in 2013,” LaVoy said. “So I started writing in 2011 and contacted Janis Peterson (of the MSO) and asked if they might be interested in the piece.”

That was how “A Child’s Requiem” came to be.

As its debut approaches, LaVoy has been helping Janice Brodersen, the MSHS choral director, as the youngsters prepare for the piece’s debut. Also featured will be a children’s choir of girls age 9-14 called Lastenkuoro – which means choir of the child in Finnish – and two soloists, youngster Senia Manson and guest soprano Renata Kapilevich, who LaVoy met at Westminster.

“It is such an honor to have the opportunity to work with this orchestra and this choir and these youngsters,” he said. “When you work on something this long, you get down to the last two weeks, it is a bit surreal. These high school students have been working so hard. They’re the most dedicated group I have ever seen.

“This is exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time, when you will have 170 musicians on stage,” LaVoy said. “I think it will be an incredible night. I can’t wait.

“I think it will be amazing.”

In 2014, LaVoy will be attending the University of Aberdeen in Scotland to begin work on his doctorate.

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.