Monday, June 16, 2008

Mass for Peace at Millennium Centre

After another 'God on Mondays' followed by a school Governors' meeting, another visit to the Millennium Centre - the second in a week - for the performance of 'The Armed Man : Mass for Peace' by Karl Jenkins, and conducted by the composer himself. The auditorium was packed, and we heard at the beginning that Rhodri, First Minister and Barry our Archbishop (both Morgans! That's Wales for you) were among the guests of honour. I don't know how often the First Minister and the Archbishop find themselves together in the social spotlight, in Wales, any more than their English counterparts do. The life and role played by leaders of large established public institutions is no longer what it was in former generations. Such moments may be much rarer than in times past. But whatever the case, music was here the cause.

Fezeka High School Mixed choir of eighty singers took the stage to perform with Salisbury (UK) Community Choir, and Salisbury Cathedral Youth Choir, three hundred or so singers in all, and just a tad under-rehearsed to my mind, given the scale of the works performed - Rutter's 'Mass of the Children' and Jenkins' 'Mass for Peace'. The event began, however with the Fezeka choir singing their on their own, with four part voices in harmony every bit as powerful as the WNO chorus, singing and swaying with huge disciplined cohesion, and abundant joy.

What was even more remarkable was that their singer conductor Phumelele Tsewu took the stage knowing that his son Tebogo had been killed the night before in a car crash in South Africa. He would not leave his wonderful choir to take the stage alone for such an important occasion. Bless 'em, they rose to the occasion, singing for and with him, and later singing together with the rest of the singers, giving it everything they could muster in Tebogo's memory.

One of the choir supporters told us this at the beginning. The choir sang, then a most moving prayer for Tebogo was offered, ending 'through Jesus Christ our Lord'. The 'Amen' voiced was thoughtful, gentle and rippled from around the auditorium. This may say something about the social conditioning and religious beliefs of the largely grey haired audience, but may also say something about a response drawn from a usually secular audience, faced with the utterly simple, non-sentimental sincerity of the pray-er, and those young people on stage who bowed their heads. For them, prayer was a normal expectation, no room for doubt or ambiguity. It awakened a response in the hearers, whether forgotten or familiar I do not know, worthy of the faith expressed by the choir.

Jenkins' music was accompanied by a video track of newsreel clips all about preparations for and fighting war, the victims and depredations of war and celebrations of victory. There was even a notice on the door to the auditorium to warn us that some the scenes shown might be distressing from the 'look away now' school of video journalistic reporting beloved of the BBC. The video ran the full length of the musical score, and I found it distracting rather than disturbing.

I mentioned last Friday the familiarity of music in an opera I didn't really think I knew. Almost every newsreel clip featured in the video I had seen before over the past 52 years - we got telly when I was eleven, and I was glued to it when documentaries about the War my parents recounted to me from their personal experience were broadcasted. So it was like a game of 'Snap', especially as it was far from clear what the criteria were for assembling and juxtaposing collections of video clips were, outside of the main beginning-middle-end stuff.

This aspect of the performance made me wonder if Jenkins had intended his work as a sound track to the video. Clare, after re-reading the libretto, decided that the music was meant to be stand-alone. I wish I'd shut my eyes. But if I had would I have stayed awake all the way through? For me the work was good in parts, some strangeness, some stimulation, some evocation of powerful feelings, but not enough to shake me deep down, in the way that for example Britten's 'War Requiem' does, or some of Taviner's prodigious output.

Nevertheless, it was an evening to remember for its ambitious assembling across continents of culture of people from different worlds united by their lvoe of singing. Heaven knows what it cost to bring the Fezeka choir over from Cape Town, but it was worth every penny. Thank you, to whoever paid.

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