Portland Symphony Orchestra
Oct. 22, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of the full version of “The Armed Man,” Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, demonstrated how much vitality remains in old forms, both musical and literary.
Written in 1999 by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (b. 1944) for chorus and orchestra, on a commission from the Royal Armouries Museum, it is completely tonal (except for a primal scream) and is unified, like “Carmina Burana,” which it reflects in its chanting rhythms and use of a Medieval song —“The Armed Man.” at the beginning and end.
In form, it is a pastiche of 13 segments, ranging from the aforementioned song through the Muslim Call to Prayer to the Roman Catholic Agnus Dei, with stops at Kipling and Tennyson.
It follows Dante and other poets throughout history in a journey to Hell and back, finding its nadir in the verses of a Japanese poet who died from the effects of Hiroshima, equalled in horror by a passage from an ancient Indian epic, the Mahàbharàta.
The work is long, perhaps too long, and called for a massive effort on the part of both the orchestra and the ChoralArt Masterworks chorus. I have seldom heard the chorus sound as powerful. Soprano Stephanie Foley Davis was superb in “Now the Guns Have Stopped,” a moving portrayal of the “survivors guilt” experienced by soldiers who return while their friends do not.
It is hard not to get caught up in the martial fervor of the descent toward battle, urged on by the tenets of religions, a cavalry charge and what Wilfred Owen called “The old lie: Dolce and decorum est pro patria mori.” The music, like Alexander’s Ragtime Band, “makes you want to go to war,” even when one knows what the result will be —chaos and animals on fire like living torches.
In the end, the almost two-hour work served as a catharsis to the capacity audience at Merrill, who gave it a well deserved standing ovation, many with tears in their eyes at the final “Better Is Peace,” in a nation now fighting seven wars in places that most cannot find on a map.
The lame and sometimes misspelled supertitle translations did not detract from the overall effect.
Leading up to “The Armed Man” were Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah) and a short work for chorus and orchestra by Mason Bates: “The Book of Mathew,” from “Sirens,” arranged by PSO Music Director Robert Moody and P. Scott.
The Bernstein symphony did not have Jenkins’ cutting edge,with the sorrow of the Lamentation movement barely surpassing the bathos of a Broadway musical, in spite of Davis’ dignified solo. It showed the composer’s genius only in the “Profanation” moment, with its syncopated evil-sounding dances. The Devil always gets the best lines.
The Bates had some lovely watery effects, depicting the scene in which Christ calls upon Peter and Andrew to become “fishers of men.” It made me want to hear all of the siren calls.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.