“The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace” received an ardent performance from the Oregon Repertory Singers on Saturday afternoon (October 8) that resonated convincingly with the audience in First United Methodist Church. Written by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins as part of England’s Millennium celebrations and dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo crisis (1998-1999), “The Armed Man” contains elements of the Catholic Mass but also includes texts from sacred and secular sources, including the Islamic call to prayer, the Hindu Mahabharata, the Bible, and poetry by Rudyard Kipling, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Sankichi Tōge, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima. Since its premiere in 2000, “The Armed Man” has had been performed over 1,000 times. Conducted by Ethan Sperry, the performance by the Oregon Repertory Singers with the Vancouver Symphony and organist Jonas Nordwall was its Portland premiere.
In his mass, Jenkins drew inspiration from a medieval troubadour song “L’homme armé” (“The Armed Man”), which has a jousting bounce that matches its lyrics perfectly:
The armed man should be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself
With a coat of iron mail.
The armed man should be feared.
Scholars have argued whether the words have something to do with St. Michael the Archangel, or the Crusades, or just the name of a tavern, but in Jenkin’s mass the song appears right away in the first movement and provides a backdrop for the next twelve movements. Surrounding the nave of the church, the Oregon Repertory Singers made a strong impression, because after singing the opening text, the chorus marched in lock step to the risers behind the orchestra. That bit of choreography added to the anticipation of warfare and its demons.
The next movements suggested a plea for peace and an attempt to prevent any kind of armed conflict. This included the “Call to Prayers” (“Adhaan”) as sung by Wajdi Said, a plaintive “Kyrie” with April Vanderwal as soloist, “Save Me from the Bloody Men” from Psalms, and “Sanctus.” The “Sanctus” came across with a fearful sense of urgency, but its plea was subsumed by the “Hymn Before Action” (Kipling), which set up the impending warfare with righteousness.
A trumpet fanfare announced the “Charge!” movement, in which warring factions are let loose and ennobled with the words “How blest is he who for his country dies.” At this point, the lighting of the stage area turned red as the orchestra and chorus upped the volume considerably and created an explosive roar.
The awfulness of war vibrated through the nave with “Angry Flames” (text by Sankichi Tōge) and “Torches” (text from the Mahabhrata), and the haunting imagery was assuaged somewhat by the “Agnus Dei” that followed.
Amelia Lamb sang “Now the Guns Have Stopped” with eloquence. The lyrics, written by Guy Wilson who was the master of the Royal Armouries Museum in London, spoke of the tragic aftermath of war in a personal way. (The museum commissioned “The Armed Man.”). In the “Benedictus,” principal cellist Dieter Ratzlaf played a beautifully soothing melody that was picked up gently by the choir. The final movement, “Better is Peace,” returned to the original medieval tune and gave a sense of renewal and hope with bold thoughts such as “Ring out the false, ring in the true” and topped it all off with a cappella warmth that “God shall wipe away all tears.”
The orchestra distinguished itself with fine playing - especially the merry pipping of the piccolo - although there were a couple of noticeable flubs in other sections. Nordwall added a healthy amount of gravitas with the organ.
The performance of “The Armed Man” was preceded by “Missa L’homme armé” by Giacomo Carissimi and Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei.” The singers stood in a triple choir formation (three distinct groups), surrounding the nave, with Sperry conducting form the center aisle. The sopranos soared magnificently with a minimum of vibrato when the choir crescendoed to a double forte, and the final measures of the piece washed over the audience with comforting tenderness.