Thursday, May 3, 2018

Karl Jenkins' "The Armed Man: Mass for Peace" performed by the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, orchestra and soloists

Photo: Yael Ilan

Taking place at the Jerusalem International YMCA on April 29th 2018 and conducted by Salome Rebello, Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man: a Mass for Peace” was the joint performance of members of five branches of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir. They were joined by the Jerusalem Street Orchestra (founded and directed by Ido Shpitalnik) and vocal soloists. This gala concert was the first performance of the work by an Israeli choir.

Welsh oboist and composer Karl Jenkins (b.1944), whose oeuvre ranges from pop, to symphonic music, spiritual chorus, ethnic music and to film music, composed the “The Armed Man” in 1999 at the time of the Kosovo conflict. It was premiered in April 2000 at London’s Royal Albert Hall and has since been much performed and recorded. Jenkins explains that “The Armed Man” was inspired by the "L'Homme armé" Masses that were prevalent in the 16th century, and he makes this reference clear with movements based on Renaissance polyphony. The work also includes writing in earlier and later styles. In the masterful weaving of disparate sources into a constantly changing and compelling whole, “The Armed Man - a Mass for Peace” manages to combine parts of the Ordinary of the Mass with other texts pertaining to war and its horrors -  a Japanese poem about the firestorms that followed the atomic bombs, an apocalyptic passage from India's Mahabharata and more.

The Oratorio performance opening with the choir’s delicate and finely blended singing of the 15th century French song, it was the prominent drum part that endorsed the work’s ominous message. Altogether, the Jerusalem Street Orchestra’s percussionists performed with impressive precision, giving much intensity and meaning to their major role throughout the work.  Salome Rebello’s direction of choir and orchestra was masterful: she integrated the voices of so many singers into a splendidly-blended choral sound, attentive to entries and phrase-endings, acutely responsive to the work’s dynamic variety and sensitive to the meaning of its texts. Hence, the singers’ velvety, delicate treatment of the “Agnus Dei” or the powerful tutti versus sotto voce moments of the “Sanctus”. Orchestra and singers led the listener into the depths of Jenkins’ message, a message not given to soft-pedalling, as in the rich, harmonic language used for Rudyard Kipling’s “Hymn Before Action”, John Dryden/Jonathan Swift’s unrelenting, powerful and frenetic “Charge!” (displaying some excellent brass playing on the part of orchestra members) and Toge Sankichi’s starkly visual description of the horrors of war in “Angry Flames”:

‘Pushing up through smoke
From a world half darkened by overhanging cloud.
The shroud that mushroomed out
And struck the dome of the sky,
Black, red, blue,
Dance in the air,
Merge, scatter glittering sparks already tower
Over the whole city.
Quivering like seaweed…’

 As to the soloists, we heard choir member Kevin McKenzie in the spine-chilling text of “Save Me from Bloody Men” (Psalms 56, 59), Dean Hosam Naoum (St. George’s Anglican Cathedral, Jerusalem) in the “Sanctus” sung in Arabic and 14-year-old Nimrod Werber in the “Kyrie” (Palestrina). And to two unaccompanied solos: Cantor Prof. Eliyahu Schleifer’s engaging unaccompanied traditional singing (in Hebrew) of Psalm 23, incorporating word-painting, and young Mohammad Abu Sneineh’s rendering of “Adhaan”, the traditional Muslim call to prayer, emerging compelling and gripping, as he took time to set out each phrase with conviction.

 This event constituted a highlight in the history of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir’s annual joint choral performances. An ambitious undertaking on the part of conductor Salome Rebello, who hails from Mumbai, India, and in Israel since 2008, her dedication and musicality, combined with her belief in what amateur sings can achieve and, of course, the hard work invested by her singers in the challenging project, produced splendid results, making for a powerful choral experience for the choir members and a memorable evening for all. Maestro Ido Shpitalnik and the young members of the Jerusalem Street Orchestra continue to move from strength to strength, making a valuable contribution to Jerusalem’s cultural life.



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