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Review of The Armed Man concert

Thanks to Ian Harris for this comprehensive review of the concert that took place on October 14th at Milton Keynes.

As we approach the centenary of the end of the First World War, there are many events, musical and otherwise, being held to mark the occasion. I was delighted to attend the concert at Milton Keynes Theatre on Sunday 14th October to hear the combined choirs of Danesborough Chorus and Bedford Choral Society under the direction of Ian Smith with accompaniment from the Milton Keynes City Orchestra. The soloist was Eve McGrath.

The concert opened with the orchestra playing Dvořák’s E Major Serenade for Strings. Whilst this is not, in my opinion, the composer’s most inspiring or memorable work, it was beautifully performed by the orchestra.  Certainly those who are more acquainted with string works than I am found this to be a faultless rendition.  In particular, the pizzicato passages fron the cellos were a joy to listen to and the various entries in the final movement felt very assured.

After a short interval, the main work was Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man (A Mass for Peace). A fairly well known piece needs a good opening and this performance definitely did not disappoint.  The snare drum and flute led us firmly but gently into the opening ‘l’Homme armé’ chorus and avoided the rather harsh entry of some performances.  After a few high sections, the top sopranos were as clear as the elegant trumpets and the rest of the chorus continued with confident rhythm, an excellent fugue section and well balanced harmony across the whole choir and orchestra.

Whilst the ‘Call to Prayers’ does not seem to add anything in particular to the overall work, the muezzin, Naeem Mahmood, carried out his role with confidence and extreme clarity and it came across very well throughout the whole theatre.

The ‘Kyrie Eleison’ saw the introduction of the solo soprano, Eve McGrath. One might think this work was written for her voice as her beautiful tone was an absolutely perfect match.  The trumpets managed to maintain the beauty of this part of the work and their entry was not at all too bold and complemented the richness of sound which was filling the stage.

The men of the combined choir pulled off some excellent unison passages in ‘Save me from bloody men’. Their articulation was as clear as any I have heard and communicated the message of the piece superbly.  Some of the longer notes in this part of the work are difficult to maintain but they produced a most beautiful dying away at the end.  The backdrop had started to be noticed and, had we been able to achieve a greater amount of clarity, it would have added even more to the emotive effects of the music and the sung text.

During the ‘Sanctus’ some of the higher orchestral parts seemed a little out of tune with each other but none of this detracted from the excellent contrasts and musical balance which were achieved at the orchestral forte entries.

As an organist, I was impressed by the subtle introduction of the organ in the ‘Hymn before action’ and agree with those around me who described this part of the work as truly elegant.

‘Charge’ is an easily recognisable chorus from this work and I’m sure the whole audience would have witnessed a huge amount of enthusiasm from the orchestra and more especially from the choir which created a real sense of energy. The soprano parts were tricky but the harmonies produced along with the excellent trumpets helped the momentum through to the end.

Whilst I would have preferred a somewhat slower rendition of the ‘Last Post’ and for it to be performed in front of the curtain, it was melodic and atmospheric.

‘Angry Flames’ can sometimes sound like a cacophony of competing noise. Not so with this performance which seemed to maintain control and coordination producing much interest and excitement.  More bold forte entries for ‘Torches’ carried the excitement through this piece.

Once again, the ‘Agnus Dei’ showed what a marvellous balance Ian could achieve from the choir, orchestra and organ. This piece was simply beautiful.  This continued into ‘Now the guns have stopped’ with a lovely string opening with the rest of the piece so much enhanced by the splendid choice of the soprano soloist.

Although the ‘Benedictus’ is fairly well known, it had much to commend it. This was a truly moving part of the evening and it feels unjust to single out just the cello and the flute but I must as they were stunning.  Also of note was the way the drums were so brilliantly introduced so as not to take any of the reverence and gentleness out of the piece and the way the ending notes were held was amazing and lovely to listen to.

The work ends with ‘Better is peace’ and new wonders awaited the audience. The sopranos found crisp, clear high notes, the piccolo blended so well with the rest of the orchestra and showed off perfect shrill runs whilst the chimes added a new dimension.  Overall, once again, the balance and harmony between the various parts was exemplary.  Dimming the lights may have necessitated ‘books down’ at the end but, whatever the reason, the effect seamlessly moved us from a performance to the feeling that the choir was sharing their feelings and experience with the audience.

On balance, it is hard to find much to criticise and one has to look very hard indeed, if that is even worth doing on such a memorable evening. I would rarely go back to listen to the same concert again but I wish I could hear this one again today.  This wasn’t just a concert, it was truly an experience to remember.

Ian Harris

Leighton Buzzard