Jenkins’ pedestrian oratorio receives game advocacy from Cantate Concert Choir

Mon Apr 17, 2023 at 12:43 pm

Cantate Chamber Choir performed Karl Jenkins’ oratorio The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, Sunday at Montgomery College in Silver Spring. Photo: Infinitude DC

Some works of music sound so much of their era that they cannot be separated from it. Such is The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, an hour-long oratorio by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, premiered in 2000. Cantate Concert Choir teamed up with the Montgomery College Chorus for a scaled-down performance of the piece, under the baton of Victoria Gau, presented Sunday evening at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring.

Jenkins made his early career playing in jazz and progressive rock ensembles in the 1970s, then switched to composing advertising jingles and new age music in the 1980s. Elements of that background surface in the style of this piece, commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum for millennium celebrations, when the museum was relocating from London to Leeds. Models include the crossover Requiem Mass by Andrew Lloyd Webber, for example.

The work’s title comes from the 15th-century folk song “L’homme armé,” which is quoted in the opening movement. The tune became popular in the Renaissance, used in around thirty cyclic Mass settings between 1450 and 1510. Music historians helped bring it back to light in the 20th century, leading composers like Peter Maxwell Davies to use it again, as the basis for his Missa super l’homme armé in 1968.

The collaborating choruses, standing mixed on the risers, created the marching cadence that opened the first movement, soon accompanied by military-style drums. Flutist Ellen Dooley, the only woodwind player in the chamber-orchestra reduction of the piece used in this concert, introduced the “L’homme armé” tune, answered by the chorus. The three trumpets added crisp martial effects to the texture.

Piped in by amplification from offstage, baritone Humayun Khan soulfully intoned the second movement, “The Call to Prayers,” the Adhaan sung by a muezzin to call the faithful to the mosque. (This was an interesting choice for the piece, since scholar Richard Taruskin has theorized that “L’homme armé” became so popular when it did because it was associated with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and European efforts to reverse it.)

An intonation-challenged “Kyrie eleison” movement featured a pleasant solo from soprano Caitlin Garry, followed by quotes from Palestrina’s Mass on “L’Homme Armé” in the “Christe” section. The sound of the chorus and especially the orchestra, with an organ picking up the parts of the missing woodwind and brass parts, tended to be anemic at full dynamics, but the more delicate parts were handled sensitively by Gau.

The men of the choirs gave a full-throated rendition of “Save Me from Bloody Men,” a plainchant-style monophonic setting of words from Psalm 59. The descent into war was primed by the “Sanctus” movement, where a much larger ensemble sound was also needed, especially in the “Hosanna” section. The three trumpets and percussionists added a note of precision and menace.

Dimming the lights suited the kitschy middle section of the piece, where the choir simulated the screaming of the dead on a battlefield, followed by trumpeter Nathan Clark’s moving performance of “The Last Post,” the British army counterpart to “Taps.” The movements with texts by Sankichi Tōge, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and a brutal passage from the Mahābhārata created an almost ghoulish effect of horror.

The pendulum swung back to cloying and sentimental in the final section of the piece, from the saccharine “Agnus Dei” onward. Mezzo-soprano Cara Schaefer sang with a plangent dramatic edge in the solo movement “Now the Guns Have Stopped.” Stephen Czarkowski, former music director of the Apollo Orchestra, pleaded sweetly on the cello solo of the “Benedictus,” positioned out of order, after the “Agnus Dei,” in the selections from the Mass Ordinary.

At the end of the piece, Jenkins turned to some regrettable clichés, setting the “L’homme armé” to a vapid text (“Better is peace than always war, and better and better is peace,” elaborated from a short line in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur). Adding a level of musical banality, Jenkins raised the third scale degree of the tune a half-step when sung to the new text, making it sound “major” in contrast to the original tune in “minor.”

Gau and her forces soldiered on through what followed, a chipper setting of Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam” and an unaccompanied choir piece on words from the Book of Revelation. While the work can come across as a series of empty platitudes, the simplicity of the musical style can at times pack an emotional punch. Ultimately, the work feels full of the naivete of the turn of the millennium, especially for a work whose studio recording was released on September 10, 2001.

Cantate Chamber Singers concludes its season under Victoria Gau with music by Lauridsen, Forrest, Simpson, and Hella-Johnson 5 p.m. May 21.

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