The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sierra Master Chorale
The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace - May 17, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
This was my first experience of the 70-voice Sierra Master Chorale and their 25-piece orchestra (plus organ). And my long drive from Roseville to the nether reaches of Grass Valley was well worth it. Among my first impressions was the sense of anticipation in the audience: I heard many people say how much they were looking forward to this performance, the first of two in Grass Valley’s Seventh-day Adventist Church, which was nearly full (on a Thursday night) with what looked to be about four or five hundred people. I began to feel that this was to be something more than a concert.
The piece to be performed, Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace” was composed in 1999 and dedicated to the victims of Kosovo. It was commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England “to look back and reflect as we leave behind the most war-torn and destructive century in human history.” It has since become enormously popular around the world and, according to Jenkins’ website, “the most performed work by a living composer [with] nearly 1000 performances since 2000.” Four of its 13 sections are parts of the traditional mass (Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Benedictus) and are sung in Latin. The remaining selections are an unusual collection of texts relating to war: a French folk song (sung in French), a selection from The Psalms, a poem by Rudyard Kipling, a poem by a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima, an excerpt from the Mahabharata, and other fragments of English poetry. It all hangs together to dramatize the lead-up to war, the chaos of its conduct, and its aftermath, closing with an optimistic affirmation of the blessings of peace. (Click here to view the concert program with full details of the individual sections.)
After the instrumental prolog, the chorus began with the sound of marching feet. This was a leitmotif throughout the piece, which was rhythmic throughout, with frequent musical evocations of an army on the march. Diverse as the music was – and it reflected many different musical forms and cultural backgrounds – I found it all very accessible, and in some of the mass sections, I thought I could hear the style of Handel and Fauré. At the same time the music was compelling.
The chorus sang with passion and conviction – and discipline. I saw faces (not music scores). I saw open mouths all moving together at key entrances. The chorus could sing with great power, but loud passages were in control: sung, not shouted. The vocal technique was polished with crisp staccato, and dramatic crescendos and diminuendos. The a cappella sections, such as the men’s chorus with the psalm, were stirring and beautiful. The incidental solos by chorus members were strong and clear.
I was struck by the good balance in volume among the chorus, orchestra and organ, no small feat in the absence of microphones and electronic volume controls. In particular, the percussion and brass got a lot of work and performed beautifully. Of course, the fact that all these elements came together harmoniously and with such great effect is tribute to the artistry of Ken Hardin’s direction (and obvious careful preparation), which brought out the beauty, drama and emotional range of the piece.
The drama in this piece is worth dwelling on. It was a bit of a shock to have an Islamic “Call to Prayers” (performed solo, a cappella and in Arabic – just as it is countless times a day in the Islamic world) as part of a composition billed as “a mass for peace.” But this element, which came early in the program and which (I’m guessing) none of us had heard to completion before, emphasized the connection to Kosovo and got this listener, at least, thinking about the relevance of this music to current conflicts. There were many other moments of great drama. I recall in particular, in anticipation of battle, the chorus repeating three times the phrase, “Lord grant us strength to die” and the intense and creative musical evocation of the chaos of battle. Then there was a remarkable catharsis in the instrumental and choral parts of the Benedictus, punctuated by a final explosion of percussion before the Hosanna, which served as a reminder that peace is fragile, and the threat of war is never fully erased.
The venue was an ideal setting for this piece, with excellent acoustics. I also appreciated the fact that in the semi-lit auditorium, it was possible to follow the full text of each segment of the music (in translation, where necessary). To me, this greatly enriched the experience, and I noticed that many around me in the audience were also following the text in their programs.This audience, by the way, was remarkably disciplined, with no hint of applause until the break before intermission (which included drinks and snacks, at modest cost, in a nearby hall). Then when the chorus began to file back into the room the audience (in what is, to me, more of a European tradition) applauded until the last chorus member was in place and director Ken Hardin had acknowledged the ovation. They didn’t have another opportunity to applaud until the end of the program, at which point they applauded the chorus until they had fully exited – and that, not just with a standing ovation, but with loud cheering. It all lasted several minutes, genuine appreciation for an exceptional musical experience.