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How British composer Karl Jenkins brought the world together

The Welsh musician is one of the most performed living composers in the world, with music that seeks to unify

Karl Jenkins

Karl Jenkins. Image: Rhys Frampton

A high-pitched cello solo floats over the orchestra, its melody undecorated in anguish. Then, a tenor introduces the Benedictus, supported by huge chorus and underlined by crashing timpani. Whereas the majority of new classical music has to fight for a second hearing, Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace is said to be performed, somewhere in the world, on average twice a week.

There have been more than 3,000 performances since the work was premiered in 2000 (with Julian Lloyd Webber as cellist), dedicated to victims of the Kosovo crisis.

Like Britten’s War Requiem (1962), which blends secular texts – such as poetry by Wilfred Owen – with the Latin mass, The Armed Man uses the Islamic call to prayer, as well as writing by Kipling, Tennyson and Hiroshima survivor Sankichi Tōge into the traditional framework, giving it wide appeal. Some special performances will be added to this year’s stats: the composer will be conducting a series of concerts featuring The Armed Man at London Royal Albert Hall (10 March), Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (17 March), Birmingham Symphony Hall (30 March), Nottingham Royal Concert Hall (6 April), Cardiff Wales Millennium Centre (13 April) and Manchester Bridgewater Hall (14 April).

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Karl Jenkins is used to conducting his work on this scale. His latest piece, One World, was recently broadcast to numbers that might even impress Taylor Swift. These were matched by a vast amount of performers, both on stage at Austria’s Brucknerhaus Linz, where 350 musicians from over 40 countries gathered under a large image of a dove, and across the world, as 270 members of the Stay at Home Choir (the ensemble set up by Tori Longdon and Jamie Wright during the pandemic) joined proceedings via screen.

Commissioned by the World Orchestra for Peace and the World Choir for Peace and dedicated to Unesco, performers – including British soloists Ruby Hughes (soprano); Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano) and Roderick Williams (baritone) – waived their fees for this extraordinary gathering, intended as a statement of collective agreement regarding social responsibility. As the timpani rolls and the brass bassline booms (signature Jenkins), the chorus sings about the tower of Babel, breaking into multiple languages. Like The Armed Man, One World uses a diverse array of source material for its texts, including the Bible, the Hindu Gayatri Mantra, poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley, activist Frances Harper and Lebanese-American writer Khalil Gibran.

Karl Jenkins – who was brought to broader fame last year when images of him at the Coronation (he composed Tros y Garreg, an arrangement of a Welsh folk song taken from his harp concerto Over the Stone, which was performed by royal harpist Alis Huws) went viral in speculation he was Meghan Markle in disguise, skilfully sews together the various styles. His detractors complain about the multiplicity and the easy-listening nature of the music, but that is the entire purpose of the exercise. There are serious solos (Repair the World), stirring choruses (“Black lives matter; human rights matter; George Floyd matters”) and ultimately, hope for redemption (The Golden Age Begins Anew). Let’s Go! (The Tower of Babel) has a hint of the barnstorming Palladio (the music used by De Beers diamonds in its ’90s advertising campaign). The concert is available via YouTube and Decca’s studio recording (featuring Williams, Rudge and soprano Lucy Crowe) is out now

Since it was founded in 1995 by Georg Solti and Charles Kaye, the World Orchestra for Peace has brought together over 750 musicians from more than 70 countries in 30 concerts, acting as an ambassador for unity. Clearly the ensemble – and works like The Armed Man and One World – are needed now more than ever. 

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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