Rep Singers Rehearse 'Peacemakers'

Steven Zielke, the artistic director of the Corvallis Repertory Singers, puts singers and musicians through their paces at a recent rehearsal. The ensemble will perform Karl Jenkins' "The Peacemakers" at two performances this weekend in Corvallis. 

In 1999, when Welsh composer Karl Jenkins was finishing work on "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace," the world was approaching the millennium, and Jenkins dared to hope that it might help to mark the end of a thousand years of war.

By 2014, when the Corvallis Repertory Singers performed the work, it was clear that Jenkins' hope might be overly optimistic.

But by that time, Jenkins had finished work on "The Peacemakers," which essentially is a sequel to "The Armed Man." The text of the piece is drawn from words written by various peacemakers throughout history, from biblical figures to St. Francis of Assisi to Martin Luther King Jr. 

"War is not going to stop," said Steven Zielke, who will lead the Repertory Singers in two performances of "The Peacemakers" this weekend in Corvallis. (See the related story for performance details.) 

But, he added, "'The Peacemakers' is a work extolling peace. ... If you want to build a better world, you talk about the way things should be."

And "The Peacemakers," a sprawling 17-movement work, puts the focus squarely on the words of visionaries who have dreamed of a world without war. 

"This focuses on the text," Zielke said. "I would argue the piece isn't even focused on music" — although people familiar with Jenkins' work likely will recognize the composer's relatively simple and cinematic music. Jenkins, Zielke said, "finds meaning through simplicity and repetition."

Which doesn't mean that the work is simple to stage. This weekend's production, in addition to the Repertory Singers, features a group of high school students who will sing the work's "children's" chorus part, and an ensemble that leans heavily on percussion and other relatively unusual orchestral instruments such as a soprano saxophone and uilleann pipes.

And, despite the heavy subject matter, the work (which has not been performed in the Pacific Northwest before) is accessible to audiences, Zielke said.

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"He writes for an audience," Zielke said of Jenkins. "But, really, didn't Bach?"

In fact, Zielke said, Jenkins would bristle if you tried to label him as a "classical" composer. 

Certainly, Jenkins doesn't hail from a traditional classical background: For most of his early career, he was known as a jazz and rock musician and played saxophone, keyboards and oboe. In the 1970s, he was a member of the progressive rock band Soft Machine, a critical favorite at the time. 

As a composer, his big breakthrough came in the 1990s with "Adiemus," a series of new age albums featuring song-length pieces with harmonized vocal melodies against an orchestra background. "The Armed Man," which came at the end of that decade, solidified Jenkins' standing and has been performed nearly 1,000 times worldwide.

"He cares about writing a different kind of music that's not classical," Zielke said of Jenkins, who now is the most performed living composer in the world. It's hard to argue with that kind of success, and Zielke isn't going to try: "This is my third Jenkins work. I've come to trust him."

Performing such a modern work is part of what Zielke wants the Repertory Singers to do each season: find the right blend between modern and more classical works while keeping the audience in mind as well. "If I can't build an audience, we're finished in a couple of concerts," he said.

The singers' next concert, the annual "Candlelight and Carols" affair, will feature such a mix: In addition to holiday favorites, the program includes Dan Forrest's "Jubilate Deo." And the February concert will take a somewhat darker view of romance with songs of passion, desire and despair from opera’s empire of classical composers, as well as works by J.S. Bach. (That concert is dubbed "The Empire Strikes Bach.")

"This is a little bit more of an innovative season," Zielke said. 

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