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Portland Orchestra, Chorus, Ballet Join Forces to Stage 'The Armed Man'
04/23/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Aimed at highlighting the horrors of war, "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace" was written 13 years ago by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins. This Friday, the Portland Choral Arts Society joins forces with the Portland Symphony and Portland Ballet Company to stage a performance of the piece at Merrill Auditorium. In addition to choir and orchestra, this week's Maine performance contains some uniquely local elements. Tom Porter reports.

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Choral Arts Society Music Director Robert Russell leads a rehearsal of "The Armed Man."

"It's an extraordinary piece of music about war, the passion of war, the terror of war, and the hope for peace," says Robert Russell, music director of the Choral Arts Society. Russell says The Armed Man was written to commemorate the victims of the war in Kosovo.

"The piece covers the spectrum of themes that one might associate with war, and the music that Karl Jenkins has composed to illustrate those themes runs the gamut of human emotion," Russell says.

IMG_0468"We start with a medieval chanson, 'L'home armee - the armed man is everywhere to be feared.' It's kind of a jaunty thing," he says, demonstrating by singing a phrase. "And it's like 'We're going off to war, hooray!' And sort of the thrill of the young soldier going off to an adventure, with probably thoughts of coming back covered in glory. The soldiers are sent off with a hymn that is a call to action. The battle itself, the charge into battle. is some of the most exciting music, about dead center in the piece. And then then aftermath is the horror of the debris that is left - the human debris, the carnage and the shock of that event."

Armed 3"This music is beautiful and it lends itself to movement," says Nell Shipman the associate artistic director and resident choreographer of Portland Ballet Company. "It was kind of a big task because this isn't really a ballet, this is a choral and orchestral work, and I was asked to create dance surrounding that. So I came up with a vision, which is one soldier's inward struggle battling with the task that he's been asked to do by going to war. "

"This piece for me and what the dance and, really, the music is translating into is a testament to how powerful the human spirit is," Shipman says.

Friday's performance of The Armed Man will also add another creative element in the form of five Maine residents who will each read a brief narration of their own personal experience of war.

"I remember the day vividly to this day, almost nine years later," says Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram columnist Bill Nemitz. Nemitz will narrate from his memory of December 2004, when he was was embedded with the Maine Army National Guard in Iraq.

Nemitz was there when a suicide bomber blew up a mess hall in Mosul, killing 22 people, including two National Guardsmen from Maine. "I think what it did for me as a journalist was bring home the fact that this was not just a story, this was not just something I was covering, These were real lives being lost right before our eyes, and the images that I witnessed that day stay with me to this day."

One of the other narrators in the piece recalls an earlier war, more than half a century ago. "I was born in Germany in 1940," says Michael Bachem, manager of the Maine Choral Arts Society.

"The incidence which is sort of seared in my family's memory is the night in February, 1945," Bachem says. "The city that I was born in and lived in for the first seven years of my life is Chemnitz, which is 40, 50 miles west of Dresden. And that night of the air raid of Dresden, when Dresden was bombed, we saw on the horizon a white shimmer, and I remember my mother saying, 'That's Dresden burning over there.'"

The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace is being performed 8 pm on Friday at Portland's Merrill Auditorium.

Photos of Robert Russell by Tom Porter. Photo of Portland Ballet Company dancers courtesy of the Portland Ballet Company.


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