A PERFORMANCE FOR THE AGES
Brisbane in November and the streets are bathed in the purple snow of falling jacaranda blossoms.
It’s warm … 30 degrees centigrade.
A poster on a corner hotel proclaims $16 meal deals.
It’s a far cry from the mud, the rain and the desolation of the World War One trenches of Europe.
Yet that’s why we’re here. To remember those who gave so much.
We cross the broad, paved expanse of King George Square.
Inside the foyer of Brisbane City Hall is cool, calm. The marble staircase and columns reach back to another era.
On this day, Sunday, November 11, 2018, the Brisbane Symphony Orchestra, together with the Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir, were performing Karl Jenkins’ beautiful and moving work, The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.
It was the second concert in a special Armistice Day presentation to commemorate the cessation of fighting to end World War One.
This concert followed an outstanding performance at Lake Kawana on the Sunshine Coast the day before.
Jenkins’ work was in response to the massacres in Kosovo during the Balkan Wars as part of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s.
Commissioned by the Royal Armouries to mark the transition from one millennium to another, it reflects on the passing of ‘the most war-torn and destructive century in human history’ and looks forward in hope to a more peaceful future.
The Armed Man is dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo conflict, whose tragedy was unfolding as it was being composed.
The Armed Man was first performed in 2000 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, conducted by Jenkins himself.
As its sub-title suggests, The Armed Man has as its framework the traditional Catholic mass, including settings of the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Benedictus.
But what makes the work distinctive are the lyrics drawn from many parts of the world and from diverse religions and cultures. The music is cosmopolitan in its inspiration.
It is the most extraordinary piece of music.
The Brisbane City Hall’s acoustics, its history, and the architecture provided a poignant setting.
The Brisbane Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Antoni Bonetti was professional, strong, accomplished, passionate.
They were joined by the 60-strong Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir for The Armed Man.
Choir president Melissa Innes describes the occasion simply.
“From marching over the hills, to gunfire and bloodshed, and finally peace.
“Being a chorister and singing The Armed Man takes you on one of the most remarkable singing journeys ever to be experienced.
“This composition so cleverly weaves the false excitement of war, with the heartache that ensues.
“It was one of the most difficult choir compositions I’ve ever been involved in; desperately attempting to separate the heart ache, emotion and pure adrenalin associated with the movements of war … with the silence, peace and then uprising of hope.
“Not an easy task when attempting to maintain quality vocal delivery.
“And not only was singing this work and being a part of this production phenomenally moving, but the stories from choristers about their family histories and the associated devastation was quite heart wrenching.
“Oriana will not forget our Armed Man performances for many years to come.”
The Brisbane audience was privileged to witness imam Ahmed Ghazeleh give a dramatic call to prayer.
Not only did it evoke the timelessness of the Middle East but the fact war does not discriminate. It touches all cultures, all levels of society.
The afternoon’s performance started with a collection of works from World War One … a commemoration of 100 years since peace broke out in Europe after millions of casualties from war.
Featured in the opening of the concert was the lyrical orchestral work, A Shropshire Lad, by George Butterworth, tragically killed in 1916 in the Battle of the Somme.
Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe’s Small Town was a gentle depiction of the main street of a country town with its monument to the fallen.
The final piece was Albinoni’s Adagio – used in many films and perhaps most poignantly in The Cellist of Sarajevo, whose protagonist vows to play it each day for each civilian killed in the Battle of Sarajevo.
In Small Town, Sculthorpe had the ability to capture the Australian landscape and sense of community. Any town, anywhere in this wide brown continent.
Compere for the afternoon Jason Barry-Smith from Australian Opera presented a series of poems and essays from the trenches and battlegrounds of France and Belgium in 1914-18.
For The Fallen by Robert Binyon, and the famous war memorial poem In Flanders Field by John McCrae.
McCrae was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist and soldier during World War One, and a surgeon during the Second Battle of Ypres.
In Australia, the most recognised flower is the red poppy, the basis of McCrae’s work. More so than the rose, more so than the national floral emblem of the wattle blossom.
It’s probably the same in Canada.
In the spring of 1915, shortly after losing a friend in Ypres, a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel McCrae was inspired by the sight of the red poppies growing in battle-scarred fields to the poem.
After the war the poppy, said to signify the blood of fallen soldiers, was adopted as a symbol of Remembrance.
The poem was written as McCrae sat upon the back of a medical field ambulance near an advance dressing post, just north of Ypres.
The poppies grew in great numbers in the spoiled earth of the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders.
In 1855, British historian Lord Macaulay, writing about the site of the Battle of Landen in 1693 – in modern Belgium, 100 miles from Ypres – wrote:
“The next summer the soil, fertilised by twenty thousand corpses, broke forth into millions of poppies.”
Oriana choir music director Fay Baker said that when given a score of The Armed Man, long before Oriana rehearsals began in mid 2018, she sat down at the piano to play through the movements.
“As I played the accompaniment and I looked at the choral parts and imagined the sound, imagined Oriana singing.
“I knew then that this was going to be a very special piece; that Oriana was going to create magic, as it so often does, and that singers and audiences alike were going to be extremely moved by the emotion of the work.
“Little did I know at that stage what an enormous impact the orchestral accompaniment was going to have on it all!
“From the peaceful, elegant Benedictus, with its wonderful cello solo, to the electrifying Charge and emotional Last Post; from the martial-like beginning of L’Homme Arme to the final exquisite a capella hymn, it was a truly emotional journey for everyone.
“To sing with such a big orchestra was a great thrill for everyone.
“Our rehearsal conductor Elisabeth Wallis Gaedtke trained the choir to perfection and the conductor Antoni Bonetti took them to new heights in the performances.
“We were very lucky to have this collaboration between two passionate, dedicated organisations.”
Choir member John Robertson provided great insight into what it was like to be a part of the performance.
“In many years of choral singing, I have not been as moved viscerally as I have with this.
“The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace takes both listener and performer alike on a roller coaster ride of emotions in a dramatic demonstration that war is indeed a scourge and a curse on all humanity.
“It ends in a message of hope, beautifully resolved musically in a sublime call for one thousand years of peace.
“Although it is described as a Mass, it is a secular work which draws brilliantly on all major faiths and only four of its 13 movements are from the traditional Christian mass.”
Another choir member Ian Rix was caught up with the incredibly detailed and graphic depiction of war.
“The emotion, the excitement, the glory, the elation, the terror, the horror, the devastation, the revulsion, the utter despair, the loss and the overwhelming sadness that follow.
“Finally, Better Is Peace brings the whole work to a fitting resolution, stating what we already know in our hearts – peace is infinitely preferable to the perpetual conflict which, sadly, seems to be the condition of the human heart.
“The impact of this amazing musical work is not easy to describe. Several people have told me that they felt as if Oriana and the Brisbane Symphony Orchestra took them to war and brought them home again.
“That, to me, is as good a validation of our combined efforts as any we could hope for. It has certainly been a major musical milestone for Oriana, and for each of us individually.”
Taken to war and then brought back home again .. exactly.
A fitting tribute on such a significant day. A day when the impact of war was remembered yet also exposed for its futility.
“In Flanders Fields”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead, short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. John McCrae