An evening to reflect and relish a musical ‘adventure’View(s):
The Armed Man, a Mass for Peace by Karl Jenkins performed by the Colombo Philharmonic Choir at the Church of St. Michael and All Angels on March 4
If one was to translate this opus into the realm of visual arts, I might reckon that this monumental piece uses ‘mixed media’. Whether one figures with the stature of Picasso’s “Guernica” or the confrontational installations of Chandraguptha Thenuwara, this tour de force reaches deep within even as it engages the audience in resolving matters both musically and emotionally. The musical substance was neither uniform nor completely predictable.
Karl Jenkins (who by the way is a knight of the realm) a Welsh composer with whose work I am not too familiar – who composed this impactful work, straddles two elements, namely, a “mass” in the liturgical tradition, and a modern work replete with contemporary 20th (even 21st) century features, sounds, emphases, attack and tonal dynamics. Jenkins has obviously thought through the whole commission in greatest detail, and the work is intended for presentation by a vast aggregation of voices in a symphonic setting.
What was seen and heard at the concert in Colombo was an adaptation of ‘The Armed Man’ as a deft and exciting re-arrangement for the Colombo Philharmonic Choir. The tailored musical collaboration featured the Colombo Brass Ensemble augmented by cello and flute with percussion and timpani, alongside the sonorous pipe organ offered the grandest acoustics in place at the particular venue.
Harin Amirthanathan (conductor) is to be lauded for his meticulous treatment of the ‘Mass for Peace’ and for his presentation of this concert. It is not one that should have been missed. Why?
It afforded those who enjoy a musical ‘adventure’ or challenge, to be on hand and relish a contemporary work of art that comprises elegant interpretation and a controlled musical performance thereof, while also feeling and realizing intellectually, the vanity of human rule and the consequences of violence, hate and the senselessness in sanguinary warfare. The libretto being available to the audience in the form of a superbly edited souvenir/programme is also a master stroke of musical management. An ‘aware audience’ is a sensible audience and therefore a sensitive one! The desired impact was achieved. The sober reflections and remarks by some present were the indices.
Jenkin’s Mass might have put one in mind of the 1959 Duke Ellington work “Tymperturbably Blue” and one or two of his extended works under Ellington’s “Sacred Concert” series, which also included choral elements, or, of the contemporary trumpet player Terence Blanchard’s compelling and ambitious tone poems and pieces. To the degree that the performance last Saturday also had the effective and balanced inclusions of percussion and timpani, one could sense the melancholic and occasional menace that exerts against peace.
The text helped. The composer has sifted through much, and had selected items from different sources, ranging from Renaissance-period poems, to Dryden’s verse, to phrases from the Sanskrit Mahabharatha, and post-war reflections by a Japanese victim of World War II. Interspersed were familiar portions of the Latin Mass such as Kyrie, Sanctus and Benedictus. It closed with a view of the “New World” as found in Revelation 21:4- the ultimate and only solution for “man’s inhumanity towards man” (Ecclesiastes 8:9)
The musical structure, however, is completely original. The harmony, melody and the overall orchestral impress with unusual and fetching dissonance and dramatic shifts in modulation as well as filtered dynamics were a decidedly deliberate departure from the occasional subtle references to the Gregorian chant or baroque styled cadences a la Bach.
In the delineation of these factors and devices, Harin had done brilliantly in attention to detail. None could have failed to appreciate the mood with the cello in the high register playing the most evocative melodic line in “Benedictus”. The sheer savagery in “Charge” with choir and ensemble offering a brassy attack underscoring the misplaced heroism in the poetic stanza “How blest is he who for his country dies!” would not have failed to touch the hearer. For these signal effects one can credit the conductor and his interpretation. The choir excelled and the balance (not easily achieved against brass and organ at full throttle!) was tastefully arrived at.
Bravo! Sincerely!! This memorable concert was a vital inclusion in the history of the Philharmonic Choir.
Arun Dias Bandaranaike
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