Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

The Armed Man – a mass for peace

Phoenix Singers

St Francis of Assisi Church, Bournville


WHATVER the sound of Phoenix when Matt Beckingham took over as musical director in 2005, they were certainly in excellent voice as he left nine years later.

Karl Jenkin’s Mass for Peace, based on the Catholic Mass was originally commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum to mark the Millennium, and is not the easiest of choral pieces, particularly for an amateur choir but with the hint of echo from the plain white walls and vaulted roof of St Francis of Assisi, they gave their director a magnificent send off.

The choir used a large screen as a backdrop with video images from The Armed Man film showing conflicts in Europe, Africa, the Far East – in fact anywhere where the armed man has ventured.

It has been estimated that in all of recorded history there have only been two days when there has been peace throughout the world, two days free of any war or conflict taking place somewhere on the planet.

The Armed Man opens with L'homme armé, a French folk song from the 15th century which became a regular part of the variations of the Latin Mass by a whole  host of Renaissance composers. It is a musical theme which reoccurs in the final piece.

Jenkins encompasses other religions as well, including the Adhaan, the haunting Islamic call to prayer  performed by Asif Quayum, a Hafiz, or protector, of the Ghamkol Sharif mosque in Birmingham.

There is also Torches, about the suffering and deaths of animals in war from the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic from ancient India. This is the longest epic poem ever recorded, incidentally, running to more than 200,000 line and 1.8 million words.

We experience conflicts past through the words of John Dryden and Jonathan Swift in Charge opening with trumpets and drums amid the colour and glory of battle and ending in the screams of the wounded and dying. That could have ended as a mess but in the hands of the choir there was still a harmony and purpose to the dischordant crescendo

The most telling section though was Angry Flames, with words from Japanese poet Toge Sankichi marking the moment when the world and mankind was changed for ever in Hiroshima.

New for old: Matt Beckingham conducting and James Llewellyn Jones singing

On 6 August, 1945, US bomber Enola Gay dropped Little Boy, the world’s first atomic bomb, on the Japanese city and in an instant 80,000 people were dead and up to a further 60,000 had died by the end of the year.

For those unsure what Einstein’s e=mc2 really means, a mass of just 0.6 grams, two hundredths of an ounce, of Uranium 235, was turned into energy - heat and light - in the explosion over Hiroshima.

Other sections included Agnus Dei, the words familiar to any churchgoer, and, fitting, 100 years on from the outbreak of the First World War, Now the guns have stopped describes the guilt felt by the survivors from that war to end all wars. It was written by Guy Wilson, the master of the museum who commissioned the mass, and who selected the other passages for Jenkins to set to music.

After the Benedictus came Better is Peace which ended on a note of hope, Praise the Lord.

The performance saw solos from Mary Rogers and Alex STait, who has a beautifully clear voice while te musicianship of Sara Wilander on piano, Trevor Workman, organ, Helen Edgar on cellow and Becky Skinner on flute, along with Stephen Plummer and Luke Taylor on Percussion and Will Morley and Adam Stockbrige, all combined to lift the performance out of the ordinary.

Edgar and Skinner were worth a particular mention for a lovely duet.

The concert marked the handing over of the MD baton from Beckingham, who is off to Opera North, to new man James Llewellyn Jones who gave a hint of what is to come with a short programme starting with Anthem from that much underrated musical Chess followed by an arrangement of Laurence Binyon’s famous war poem For the Fallen by Mike Sammes. People of a certain age will remember the Mike Sammes singers as being fixtures on the BBC Light Programme and the style was immediately recognisable. A short blast of Hallelujah, Amen from Handel and then what has become the rugby world cup anthem World in Union, with Beckingham singing a solo with his successor singing in the encore.

The old adage is that those who can do while those who can’t teach, but the old and new musical directors displayed that not only can they teach choral work, they can also sing with voices any choir would grab with both hands, or a couple of hundred hands in Phoenix’s case

Phoenix has built an impressive reputation as a choir and with performances like this it is easy to see why.

Roger Clarke

Next performance, Summer Concert, 12 July, 2014, at The Rudock Performning Arts Centre, Edgbaston

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