Our Berlin Story

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Our Berlin story started on 18th May 2018 when Gwawr Owen of Rondo Media, a company based in South Wales, contacted me as secretary of Isle of Man Choral Society, asking if we would send her an audition disc to enable our singers who wanted to go to Berlin to sing in a concert performing the Armed Man – A Mass for Peace to commemorate the 100 years since the Armistice was signed at the end of World War 1. The email was worded, “This is an invitation to choirs from Sir Karl Jenkins to perform in a historic concert in Berlin in November 2018.”

Whilst this invitation was received by me with some surprise, it came only four months after fifty members of our choir sang the world premiere of Sing! The Music was Given in Carnegie Hall, New York, at which Sir Karl Jenkins, the composer, and his wife Lady Carol were present. The Artistic Director of Distinguished Concerts International New York, Dr Jonathan Griffith who conducted the choir in New York, was impressed by the preparation that our singers had achieved under the guidance of our Director of Music, Julian Power BEM, and it is likely that his praise was shared with Sir Karl with whom Jonathan Griffith has been associated for at least ten years. Therefore, my surprise was not really justified, and our audition clip of the Dies Irae of Verdi’s Requiem sung in March [2018], was quickly sent to Rondo Media attached to the detailed website application requiring the names of the singers who wished to go and be part of this historic event.

The buzz of members wishing to go [some with non-singing partners] was palpable. It was also quite infectious and those advising me of their intentions to go to Berlin were often on tenterhooks to receive further information which seemed to come in dribs and drabs over the next few months and even up to the week before the concert.

Those singers who had sung in New York had the experience of what was required and information from those was quickly made available. Information as to heights, age and voices was sent to Gwawr Owen and again those who had sung in New York logically expected to sing with others of their voice with similar heights and not particularly alongside a fellow choir member.

This was not to be in the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin. The Arena is capable of accommodating 17,000 people. This project initially wanted a choir of 3,000 singers all of whom must have sung the work before [therefore fully comfortable with the work]. Some of our singers had sung it more than three times and therefore had a good knowledge of the work. Isle of Man Choral Society [IOMCS] had sung it twice – in 2006 and 2014. A good number of the choir had sung it in the Royal Albert Hall, London. Even so, Julian organised two good and very intensive rehearsals which refreshed the members and, achieved a high standard of performance. Special attention was paid to the trickier parts of the work such as the fugue in the Kyrie and the chorale at the end of the work which is sung a capella, and all of us could not wait to attend in Berlin and do our best.

As said earlier, information from the organisers – Rondo Media, came piecemeal and about three weeks before the concert we received a most detailed summary of the music being sung by us, by the semi-chorus, and movements sung in German, Welsh and Japanese. In effect the fugue mentioned a few moments ago was not sung by the choir but by a selected semi-chorus. The Hymn before Action was sung in English [first verse] and then in German [second verse], the latter requiring different notations of both notes and syllables; but it worked in the end even though we were advised wrongly of the words [in German] as along the way the words were asked to be sung in the wrong order!

One movement [Angry Flames] was sung in Japanese by a beautiful Japanese soprano soloist, Yumeji Matsufuji; another [Now the Guns have stopped – Mae’r gynnau’n fud] was sung in Welsh and with a renowned Welsh mezzo-soprano, Leah-Marian Jones, whose delivery was effortless and with supreme passion. The chorale at the end of the work was sung from memory – we were even told which hand was to hold the score at our side. The Stage Manager for Rondo was superb. She was firm and clear with her instructions; always grateful for our patience and understanding.

The first rehearsal on 31st October 2018, was scheduled to be held in a large concert hall next to the Mercedes-Benz Arena when half the choir [including our members] would be directed by Nicol Matt, a brilliant conductor born and raised in the Black Forest, Germany. This rehearsal opened with a warm-up, run by another top German musician who had his own, unique way of warm up. He asked us to contort our faces, to swing arms and legs and many other movements which to most of us were very alien. He then played the keyboard for the rehearsal and this was when it became clear that this guy knew his music and was most supportive; he very much wanted to be part of the end-product.

Nicol Matt had received instructions from Sir Karl Jenkins regarding specific requirements, and when we did it to those instructions, Nicol showed much praise. There were several moments when his emotions were such that he had difficulty speaking. He said that we had sung so beautifully. Maestro Matt required dynamics, control and emotion in equal measure and he was so visibly pleased with the result. At the end of this half-choir rehearsal [say 750 singers] Sir Karl Jenkins came onto the stage and said a few words concerning what the concert was all about and that he looked forward to rehearsing us the day after and conducting us at the concert.

At this point we had expected to be handed a lanyard with our passport details on it and to be used [as a security tag] to gain access to the Mercedes-Benz Arena the day after. In the event this did not happen, and we were instructed to arrive half an hour earlier the following morning to receive lanyards and take our places as indicated on the lanyard itself. In the event Isle of Man Choral Society singers all sang on row 11 and when one watches the TV recording of the concert those singers not as tall as others in front of them were unable to be seen.

In the afternoon of the second day and after rehearsing, we were all encouraged [all thirty-one countries taking part] to meet one another down by the river and display our flags and sing our national anthems or other similar tunes. Robert Floate of our choir had brought a large Three Legs of Man flag and we sang Oh Land of our Birth in very good four-part harmony. Other countries sang their anthems and this informal gathering reflected the raison d’être of the concert in bringing all nations together in peace and harmony. It was for some to be the first of several emotional moments of the Berlin trip. Our committee member and soprano, Carole Sutherland, was interviewed for the S4C and Arte broadcasts of the concert and said that her grandfather had been killed in action and on the day of the concert, 2nd November 2018, her father would have been 100 years old and was a baby when his father had died.

The concert day [2nd November 2018] arrived when we would rehearse in the early afternoon in full concert dress of white shirts/blouses, black trousers and black shoes with no bow ties. I should have mentioned that to my left I had Julian Power, who is our maestro and conducts us as MD and sings tenor but had chosen to sing the bass part for the first time even though he had sung and conducted the work many times before. Julian was most interested, as we all must have been, in the orchestra – The World Orchestra for Peace, which consisted of over seventy of the world’s top musicians. For me it was the first, and probably will be the only, time that I had sung with a full professional orchestra. I thought several times, “Am I really here in Berlin about to sing The Armed Man in a concert going out to millions on TV both live and recorded and conducted by the composer himself?”

My feelings were further heightened by the news from Australia that my daughter Sara, who lives in a suburb of Sydney, had given birth to her first son [after three daughters] a few hours earlier! This day was going to last in my memory for ever!

The World Orchestra for Peace was formed by George Solti in 1995 for a special concert in Geneva marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. Since Solti’s death in 1997, the orchestra has been reassembled by Charles Kaye who introduced these brilliant musicians to us before the dress rehearsal commenced. In 2010 this orchestra became the first orchestra to be designated a UNESCO Artist for Peace and its two concerts in the UK and with us in Berlin had been designated UNESCO Concerts for Peace, in the year marking the centenary of the 1918 Armistice.

The dress rehearsal finished around 17:00 and gave us all time to have a quick meal in one of the many restaurants adjacent to the Mercedes-Benz Arena, before returning to the Arena by 19:00 to pass through security and take our places before the commencement of the concert at 20:00 which was in two parts.

The first part of the concert was for the semi-chorus only in one of the items – A Lament for Syria [Sir Karl Jenkins] which was the European Premiere with the solo part sung by Leah-Marian Jones and many of us were so touched and joyfully tearful when this work was performed; it is so beautiful. The half opened with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man followed by Jenkins Palladio. The first of course composed for brilliant brass; the second for strings.

The Lamentation was then performed and followed by the Theme from Schindler’s List [John Williams] played with much passion by Krzysztof Wisniewski on violin, whose grandparents had been in the Holocaust. Krzysztof was on the fourth desk of first violins, so you can gauge from that how wonderful all these musicians in the orchestra were. After this wonderful playing, the orchestra then performed the first and fourth movements of Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin”. What exquisite writing of French music with its intricate passages of wonderful woodwind and strings. This piece brought the first half to a close and had been under the baton of Grant Llewellyn who is presently Music Director of the North Carolina Symphony and Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne

After a twenty minutes break, Sir Karl Jenkins entered the Arena to conduct L’Homme Armé – The Armed Man a “Mass for Peace” in front of an audience which we estimated to be of about 5,000. The work lasts for one hour and twenty-two minutes and the choir had been expected to stand for all that time. All the rehearsals had been performed with the singers not sitting down. However, after the dress rehearsal we were told that we could sit down if there was no noise created when doing so, but only when the semi-chorus was singing Angry Flames.

Singing this work conducted by the composer Sir Karl Jenkins was very emotional for many of us.

For the audience it would be received with awe as not only was the 1500 strong choir supported by this wonderful orchestra, but there were several enormous screens behind the choir showing scenes of horror, war and conflict. I believe that the audience had been warned that some of the scenes were likely to upset them.

As mentioned earlier, the final part of the last movement is sung a capella and we sang it from memory. The lighting dimmed to a sombre and ethereal level which suited the drama and passion of this truly remarkable work performed in Berlin on the centenary of the 1918 Armistice. The occasion will be remembered for such a long time – indeed forever; we had taken part in a world event, with choirs from thirty-one countries now called “The World Choir for Peace” all singing together for peace under the baton of the composer Sir Karl Jenkins. Incredible!

Where does Isle of Man Choral Society go from here?

Brian Holt – Secretary of Isle of Man Choral Society  – December 2018

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