REVIEW: The Armed Man - April 2015

Reviewed by Leonie & Peter McRae

“Better is peace than always war” - this was a production of heart-tugging sincerity taking its audiences into the deep pain and suffering inflicted when men go to war – any war, any time in our history, through to a tenuous peace.

The Armed Man was an extraordinarily successful major production presented by the Edgecumbe Choir with weekend performances moving some to tears, some to a numbed silence and everyone to a deep appreciation of the stunning performances. Six of the choristers took solo vocal parts, all with considerable credit.  

Dr Karl Jenkins OBE wrote The Armed Man imaginatively drawing on the modern and ancient cultures of east and west to compellingly describe both the terrible and irrevocable horror and destruction that is war and then to describe survivor’s tentative sense of hope, and then relief, as hostilities end and peace is declared. 

The 63 voice Choir, under Tony Hogg’s skilled and unobtrusive direction, integrated well with the ten-piece local and guest instrumentalists while the synchronised big screen videoed graphic scenes of war – from arrows to atom bombs then, after victory and defeat, the rebuilding what was torn down allowing survivors to re-start their lives without fear of “armed men”. To be in the audience was to hear and witness their experiences. 

The Armed Man opened with the rhythmic sound of marching feet, a solitary flute introducing the main theme followed by trumpets and organ and persistent bass notes building, building, building into strong martial music into the well blended voices of the full choir, all effectively creating a sense of great apprehension.

The contrasting, recorded Arabic ‘Call to Prayers’ was attentively and respectively listened to by performers as the big screen unfolded ritual scenes of hands at prayer and bodies bent in prayer. 

There was an expressive organ introduction to the Latin Kyrie, then a fine young soprano solo voice and outstanding cello work leading to beautiful full choir singing of this part of the Mass.  

Save Me From Bloody Men was in English, using biblical passages, emphatically introduced by the male voices to be over-taken up by ominous drumming building tension to a dialogue between voices and trumpets back-grounded by big screen shots of dictators Mussolini and Stalin.

The well-pronounced Latin Sanctus was vocally pitch-perfect in a mood set by percussion and trumpets and sustained by the choir into well developed climaxes and quality tone; the emotion expressed was so strong it felt like a physical impact. 

The Choir, in the Hymn Before Action, used Rudyard Kipling’s text with good, crisp diction, with an impact made all the more effective by the visual of a huge aircraft carrier turning, at speed, toward the audience as the sound of music built into a crescendo. 

In Charge, the brass and percussion instruments set the mood with the vocal text, taken from 17th and 18th century writings, carrying it on to conclude with the scene of a huge Skymaster ‘plane landing and unloading with military solemnity coffins of men killed in action. This ran against a solitary, off-stage bugler playing the Last Post to a silent theatre. 

Angry Flames was poignant with the organ effectively setting the sense of futility and unrelenting despair well expressed by four vocal soloists; amongst them the adult alto had both excellent tone and diction. 

Torches had sensitive and moving cello work, eerie and dramatic, evoking trauma and fear then a strong drumming beat, preparing for the soprano and alto voices entry using translated English from the Sanskrit, with good diction and emphasis throughout.

Rows and rows of white graveyard crosses on the big screen was the background to the sombre Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’) sung with sensitivity and well accompanied and supported by the underlying ‘presence’ of the organ.

Now The Guns Have Stopped: Against the backdrop of snow-topped mountains gradually changing into scenes of the wounded being cared for and the dead buried, the fine timing and sense of the piece from the organist lead into a  vocal solo movingly portraying great grief, all with clear diction, good control and phrasing, by the alto soloist.

An outstanding cello solo led into the Benedictus with an equally outstanding flute solo echoing the cello to create such a mood for the tenors and altos soft entry and with the tutti vocals ending in quite beautiful unison singing against pictures of prisoners despair and bewilderment as they are searched and taken away.

The tenor and bass solo entry gently introduced Better Is Peace (Than Always War),  the final segment, with more outstanding flute playing and solos from alto and soprano soloists, building to an incredible finish where the joy and relief in the coming of peace seemed to be palpable on both sides of the proscenium arch!  

It must have been a very special ‘show’ for everyone involved and it was particularly good to see and hear young people in the choir performing both as choristers and soloists. Which lead to the thought that The Armed Man would be a significant and timely production to perform for the senior classes of our high schools. Yes?

The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace was an extraordinary work performed extraordinarily well, under Tony Hogg’s baton, by the Edgecumbe Choir and its guests. From the Little Theatre setting, the well presented and informative 

programme to the emotional and effective performances everything was well prepared. Probably the only unprepared part was at the conclusion of the Sunday afternoon performance when, at the final downward sweep of Tony Hogg’s baton it flew from his hand to the floor of the stage – it was truly the end!

The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace was a most fitting conclusion to the ANZAC Centenary weekend.