For all intents and purposes, this concert benefitted from a nearly full house, a packed sanctuary for what was billed as “War and Peace: A Concert for Hope.” The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus combined with its High School Affiliates to present a massive vocal presence while the Buffalo Chamber Players is a fine ensemble.
So … it was a good concert, interestingly programmed, and well worth attending. The performers were solid and the venue (from an aesthetic standpoint) fit the music well. When it ended, the audience, en masse, rose to its feet and applauded … a lot.
While the chorus and the instrumentalists were reason enough to check the concert out, the addition of an unusual program sealed the deal for a number of attendees. Despite providing the chance to hear well-performed versions of notable scores by Johannes Brahms and Heinirich Ignaz von Biber, for this particular concert and that particular night, the area premiere of Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace” grabbed the most attention.
Brahms’ wonderful motet “Warum ist das Licht gegeben” and von Biber’s brief 17th century orchestral piece “Battalia” both have their attractions, especially the motet, which caused Brahms’ biographer Malcolm MacDonald to speak of the work as striking a balance between “theological subtlety and confessional doubt.”
Von Biber’s claim to current fame relies on a few orchestral pieces, some choral works and a few ill-mannered jibes about the similarity of his name to that of a notorious pop star from Stratford, Ont. In “Battalia,” there is a point in the allegro (subtitled “Revelling of Musketeers”) where bitonality, the use of two different keys at the same time, comes into play. It’s the kind of thing that Igor Stravinsky stunned his “Rite of Spring” audiences with and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart inserted into his “A Musical Joke.”
Erin Freeman led the ensembles with a practiced hand, drawing every bit of energy and art from the score that she could get hold of. Together, they made a strong case for hearing the piece as it goes forward into the repertoire.
The Jenkins Mass is a sprawling beastie with its heart in a good place; the inspiration at its lyric core was drawn from centuries of text on war and peace, elements of the Latin liturgy mixed with poetry from Rudyard Kipling, a sampling of Psalms, an arresting segue between a poet/survivor from Hiroshima and an ancient war narrative from India.
Jenkins’ treatments of the Latin Kyrie, Sanctus, and Benedictus were generally inventive, well thought out and orchestrated for maximum effectiveness. The aforementioned segue between the Hiroshima piece and the Indian text was seamless. Using the classic “l’homme arme” mass anchor as a starting point was clever, as was the inclusion of the Muslim “Call to Prayers” in the body of the piece. Other times found the text and music blend a little underwhelming, as if this were a piece in process and hadn’t quite reached its final version.