A chance ‘find’ on social media had alerted me to the opportunity to be part of a 2000 strong chorus coming together to perform Sir Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man in Berlin. This music was written as a Mass for Peace which embraces many religions and was originally dedicated to the victims of Kosovo, however, it is relevant to all experiences of war. I knew immediately that this was not to be missed! A group of 10 choir members (and one supporter!) got together and we organised all that was necessary to make the trip happen.
We arrived in Berlin on Tuesday October 30th 2018, and next day, attended the first rehearsal with the excellent and very charismatic Nicol Matt and Alex Koller who were both so skilled in getting a group of strangers to sound like a (very large!) chorus. A good lesson about mental imagery to help the mood of the various sections of the piece, e.g. in the Kyrie, imagine cradling and singing to a baby.
On the Thursday afternoon members from each of the 30 countries represented in the choir were encouraged to meet outside the Arena with a national flag and everyone was asked to be prepared to sing a national song. We, along with other Scottish choir members sang ‘Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond’. It was so lovely that everyone joined in any song they knew. Being a dual national, I couldn’t resist joining some Israeli Choristers and we sang Shalom Chaverim, a round which many choirs around the world seem to know – and again, lots of people joined in. Passers-by seemed to love it and the atmosphere was very joyous and very special.
That evening we also had a full rehearsal at the Mercedes Benz Arena by Sir Karl HIMSELF as well as a full orchestra – the superb World Orchestra for Peace with musicians from all over the world.
The time was spent trying to ensure that we were as united as we could, staying in pitch (an orchestra can help an amateur chorus with this) and most importantly, that the piece was progressing in time with the projected images on the large screens. This, we discovered, was quite a challenge, it seemed like every bar was timed with images to match it, and the tempo which was predetermined, was sent to a device worn by Sir Karl, giving him a click which he had to follow at precisely the right time in order to ensure that the image transition was correct. The full effect of this was not obvious until in the dress rehearsal when we found ourselves glancing behind at the screens to see some of the images selected to correspond with the various movements of the piece. At key point, some of us were close to sobbing, I wondered whether I would be able to hold it together in the performance!
Of course, preparation is everything and the dress rehearsal helped us de-sensitise to the moving, sometimes, harrowing images projected. We also got to listen to the first part of the concert programme which was stunning. This first part included Jenkins’ brand-new composition Lamentations, written in response to the beautiful poem by Amineh Abouh Kerech, born in 2004, a refugee from the Syrian conflict. The second half of the concert was The Armed Man, and before we commenced, the audience was asked not to clap between the movements. It is hard to put to words the feelings generated by the performance, particularly at the end, there was a stunning silence – what felt like a long pause between the time Sir Karl lowered his arms and the first person to clap their hands. It was such a sign of respect, as if the whole arena just took that moment to let the experience sink in. I suppose to us, we can hardly believe we actually took part in this most awesome, meaningful experience. Perhaps the choral experience of our lives.
Apart from the singing, we had, as a group, the most amazing time. Laughter, good food, some time to explore little bits of Berlin, and a sense that we were sharing something very special, an experience we will never forget!