According to Stephen Ramsey, music director of the Dakota Valley Symphony, having high school students perform "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace" by Karl Jenkins, a reflection on the horrors of war and the hope for peace, makes it even more powerful and urgent.
"If this happens again, they're not going to send me," he said. "Who are they going to send?"
Next Sunday, high school chorales from Lakeville North and Lakeville South will join the Dakota Valley Symphony Chorus — more than 200 singers — and the Dakota Valley Symphony for the Three Choirs Festival at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center, where they will perform the 63-minute piece.
Modeled after a traditional Catholic mass, "The Armed Man" contains 13 movements and draws from a collage of sources — excerpts from Kipling and Tennyson, ancient Indian texts, the Bible. The piece was commissioned by the British Royal Armouries Museum and premiered in 2000.
"It's definitely modern music," said Lakeville South section leader Christian Messier, 17, pointing to the inclusion of various languages — English, French, Latin, Greek, Arabic — and the use of dissonant sounds.
"There's some pretty dramatic changes in the style of the music," said Logan Roberts, 17, president of the Lakeville South concert chorale choir. He particularly likes the first movement, which starts off with a marching drumbeat and a few piccolos in the 15th century French folk tune "L'Homme Armé" ("The Armed Man").
"It's in a minor key, and it's about people marching to war," Roberts said.
In the next movements, a muezzin performs a Muslim call to prayer, and then the chorus takes up the hauntingly beautiful "Kyrie." In the fourth movement, "Save Me from Bloody Men," a cappella singing in the style of a Gregorian chant is accompanied by a single bass drum.
The movement "Charge!" begins with the trumpets (and trombones) of war and ends with screaming and wailing. Ramsey said Jenkins writes few directions for this section, one of them being "Convey horror."
"It builds up to such an strong peak," Ramsey said. "Eventually, it's just one long held fortissimo scream."
Out of that, a single trumpet plays "The Last Post," the English version of "Taps," and then "Angry Flames" and "Torches" describe the aftermath of war. The piece moves through the elegant and subdued "Agnus Dei" and ends with "Better is Peace," a version of the first movement but in a major key.
"It's an emotional journey," Ramsey said. "It's very moving all the way through."
Lakeville South section leader Kierstin Bird, 18, said the piece has made her consider the reality of war. "A lot of times we can get caught up in our own selfish lives," she said, "but it really forces us to look outside of our [selves]."
Julie Brott, director of choral music at Lakeville South High School, said her students have been have been listening to individual voice parts on their iPods since last fall and have spent all of January focusing on the piece in class. "The articulations have to be really spot on to have it sound so good with such a large group," she said.
Roberts, who was involved in the festival in past years, said, "it makes you more confident because you have a mass of people singing. It's a really cool experience. It's something I really cherish."
"It's always fun putting together something so massive," Dakota Valley Symphony concertmaster Angela Hanson said.
Hanson will be featured in the symphony's performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 ("The Turkish"). The symphony will also perform Johann Strauss' "Egyptian March."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.