Arms around the world

Mass for Peace | Royal Albert Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

It's ironic that Britain's oldest museum should have commissioned a musical plea for peace that is also, in a sense, a museum. Karl Jenkins's stylistically regressive A Mass for Peace is viewed, and here I quote from the programme, as "the Royal Armouries' main contribution to the end of one millennium and the beginning of another". It provided the commission and the Masterclass Music Charitable Trust, in collaboration with Classic FM, organised the charity world premiere.

The main body of Jenkins's Mass is flanked either end by the anonymous 15th-century French song "L'homme armé". The fife-and-drum-style opening soon gains momentum; there's a Muslim call to prayers (delivered unaccompanied by Mohamed Gad) and a theatrical setting of Swift and Dryden that builds to momentary cacophony then stops dead for "The Last Post". Jenkins softens his voice for a tranquil sequence where the "Agnus Dei" and "Benedictus" frame a setting of words by the Master of the Armouries. It ends with a comforting promise from the Book of Revelation.

Grant Llewellyn conducted the National Youth Choir and National Musicians' Symphony Orchestra and a competent line-up of soloists. It seemed like an excellent performance. And the music? The sort of stuff you'd expect to hatch under a fairly stringent totalitarian regime: colourful, uncomplicated, hummable and safe. The multi-cultural mix (Brazilian and Afro-style drumming) is all well and good in principle, but I can't hear that Jenkins has done much with it.

Think back to how Pärt, Reich, Tippett, Stravinsky and others embraced disparate cultures for the last millennium and you'll recall worlds where creative excitement was caught on the wing. These people challenged and changed us. Even Leonard Bernstein's Mass, awkward and tacky as it sometimes was, faced the present head-on. Here, I felt like a prodigal son forced home to share something "normal" with mum and dad.

The obvious parallel is with film music - Zulu meets Disney, perhaps. And while it might have been interesting to pit my bewildered reactions against prolonged shouts of approval from the audience, I can't do that either. It will be interesting to see if the forthcoming Classic FM broadcast (scheduled for 5 May at 9pm) prompts the sort of positive reaction that Górecki's Third Symphony, Jan Garbarek's Officium and Gavin Bryars's Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet achieved on the same station a few years ago.

Prior to this, Llewellyn offered us a Schubertian account of Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard Overture (the oboe sounded like something out of Rosamunde) and Julian Lloyd Webber brought his customary warmth to Elgar's Cello Concerto. Classic FM's Jamie Crick revived the idea that the Concerto might well have worked as part of a war symphony. Eighty-odd years on and its power remains undiminished.

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