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Ancient song of ‘˜Armed Man’ finds new life

By Pierre Ruhe/Published in AJC It is the height of innovation and collaboration, but isn’t coming from Atlanta’s hip, intown arts troupes. Instead, a community choir that serves historic small towns south of Atlanta — Griffin, Barnesville, Thomaston, Forsyth and others — is pairing with a local dance troupe for a world premiere based on a 500-year-old song that expressed the bond between religion and war. Griffin Choral Arts and Griffin Ballet Theatre offer a staged version of Karl Jenkins’ ecumenical oratorio “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace” in two performances on Friday and Saturday. Who is the Armed Man, or “L’homme arm” in its original French title? No one knows. What’s certain is that half a millennium ago someone wrote music of extraordinary stickiness — a short melody with inscrutable lyrics that shot across Europe and inspired composers as far back as 1460 and as recently as 2000. Was it originally meant to instill fear of the Muslims invading the Holy Land? To rouse crusaders for the fight against infidels? Was it a depiction of Christ as a fighter, leading his troops in battle against Satan and heretics? Could it be sung mockingly, almost like a nursery rhyme, to poke fun at the invaders or at bumbling citizen-soldiers after the government decreed garrisons would be billeted in family homes? The genesis is a mystery but the hummable song remains: “The Armed Man must be feared/The cry is heard all over/That everyone must arm himself/with a coat of chain mail.” At a time when religion and war were inseparable, “The Armed Man” became a meme of the Renaissance. It inspired more than 50 sacred Mass settings (by genius composers from Josquin to Palestrina to Pierre de la Rue). And it lives on, reinterpreted in 1968 by British composer Peter Maxwell Davies and in 2000 by Welsh composer Jenkins in a version that attempts to bridge cultures and sing of global peace. Following the Renaissance masters, Jenkins sets the ancient song into a Mass but also includes texts from English poets (Dryden, Tennyson) plus the Koran, the Bible and the Hindu “Mahabharata” for what is billed as “a compelling account of the descent into and terrible consequences of war.” The show will highlight the third season of Griffin Choral Arts, a community choir founded in 2007 by Steve Mulder in partnership with Mitch Flanders’ Griffin Ballet Theatre, now in its 16th season. The choir’s 50 singers and a chamber orchestra will accompany Flanders’ choreography, with a mix of community and professional dancers. ”We’d been working on a collaboration for two years,” Mulder says, “and ‘˜The Armed Man’ is dramatic and emotional and at times like a movie soundtrack — it begs for visual elements as you listen.” Aware of the many military families in his community, Mulder stresses the group “doesn’t want to convey that war is bad or that we’re anti-soldier, but rather that we’re pro peace. We don’t want to alienate anybody.” For Griffin Choral Arts, the show is financially huge. In its first two seasons, the annual budget hovered around $30,000. Jenkins’ “The Armed Man” alone will cost more than $35,000. Flanders describes the choreography as “balletic with a modern edge, and I’ve kept a storyline from what’s in the score.” In one dire scene, for example, sheer red cloth is run across the stage, representing flames, with dancers behind it, harshly illuminated — a representation of people burned alive as the collateral damage of war. ”This project has consumed us for two years,” Flanders says. “Something this ambitious is a way to build our audiences and help us, and help the community, step up to the next level.” Pierre Ruhe is classical music critic of CONCERT PREVIEW Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace” Griffin Ballet Theatre and Griffin Choral Arts. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $15, Griffin Auditorium, 234 E. Taylor Street, Griffin. 770-468-3072,

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