Three performances of growing intensity were given last week of a thorny yet fascinating new work for chorus, baritone soloist and large orchestra in Symphony Hall. James MacMillan, Scottish composer of high repute in the British Isles, had been asked by the London Symphony Orchestra to compose a work in honor of its President—Sir Colin Davis—in celebration of the maestro’s 80th birthday. The resulting St. John Passion, a potent distillation of the gospel plus several additional liturgical texts was given its premiere in London under Mr. Davis’s direction on April 27, 2008. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin had ultimately jointly commissioned the music. The Boston performances last week were the work’s American premiere.
Sir Colin was from 1972 through 1984 the Principal Guest Conductor of the BSO, and his earlier ties to the orchestra have only been strengthened in the past several years by his renewed series of annual appearances, which began in November 2003 after a much-too-long 19-year hiatus. He has a special affection for John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and that organization’s collaborations with Mr. Davis over the years have been highlights of many a Boston singer’s career. So it was a special alignment of the stars that allowed the Orchestra’s management the opportunity to similarly celebrate Sir Colin’s 80th birthday with the American premiere of James MacMillan’s St. John Passion.
The work stands in two parts. The longer first portion is largely narrative of the arrest of Jesus after Judas’s treachery, Simon Peter’s three-time disowning of Jesus, Christ’s appearance before Pontius Pilate, and the unruly mob which demands his crucifixion. The shorter second “half” of the work, though still narrative, allows for more contemplation of the issues at hand with two important added tropes as it assays Jesus’ crucifixion, the parting of His garments, the touching dialogue between Jesus and His mother at the foot of the cross, and Jesus’ death. The first of these tropes are what are known as “The Reproaches,” Middle-Ages texts added to the liturgy heard on Good Friday which were meant to make the person of Jesus seem more human by allowing him to show deep anger and frustration with the people who allowed him to be condemned and crucified. The second trope is a meditation for orchestra alone, which acts as the close of the composition.
MacMillan’s music is polyglot but never random. He employs a large traditional orchestra with an expanded percussion section which includes temple blocks, tuned gongs and Sanctus Bells, bells which when rung in a traditional Mass celebration of Holy Communion announce the presence of the Holy supernatural. A full complement of strings, woodwinds, brass and a chamber organ make for a particularly rich orchestral palette. He divides his vocal resources between a Baritone soloist who sings the words of Christ, a small “Narrator Chorus” whose role is to sing the words of the St. John gospel in quasi-chant like fashion, and a very large mixed chorus, whose weighty interjections are heard at several important points in ongoing telling of the story.
From this alone, one can gather that this setting of the Passion story is something quite different from its predecessors, yet there are many points in MacMillan’s music which to my ears recall other Passion settings by J.S. Bach, Heinrich Schütz, Osvaldo Golijov, Arvo Pärt and Krzysztof Penderecki.
In the hall, MacMillan’s music is riveting and expository, mostly tonal, though excursions into atonality occur. Throughout it is skillfully wrought for instruments and singers, challengingly difficult, and ultimately quite emotional in effect. If one is willing to submit to the content of the text and be swept up into the drama and awful poignancy of St. John’s compelling description of horrible cruelty wished upon a Godlike person by his uncomprehending contemporaries, one cannot help but be significantly moved by this music.
In the role of Christus, baritone Christopher Maltman was exemplary and riveting. His instrument has all of the requisite and commanding power his role demands, and his invocation of drama and force as he portrayed one of history’s most extraordinary individuals was compelling and moving, especially so in The Reproaches, when Christ, while dying on the cross, demands to know why his people have allowed him to be brought to such a hideous end when he had done only good for them.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, this time wisely on-book for such a complex new work, heroically rose to every challenge presented by this demanding score. The smaller Narrator Chorus was flexible and extremely musical as it recounted the gospel text, elegantly essaying the composer’s unusual ornamentation of vocal lines and multiple group glissandi. The larger mixed chorus was heard to great effect whenever it was asked to sing. It was especially moving when it embodied the mob which demands Jesus’ blood, and when it unexpectedly personified Peter’s tripartite disowning of Jesus. Later, in the description of the scene at Golgotha of Christ on the cross speaking to his mother, the chorus’s soft interweaving of the Stabat Mater with the Coventry Carol’s touching lullaby text, all overlaid with the familiar Passion Chorale so movingly used by Bach, was a wonder to hear.
Sir Colin led the BSO with an economy of gesture yet as a powerful advocate for this music. The orchestra rewarded him and his audience with detailed and beautiful playing of the highest order, all-powerful when required, and preternaturally quiet and contemplative when asked. This was especially evident in the “postlude” of the oratorio that MacMillan has titled “Sanctus Immortalis, miserere nobis” (Holy Immortal one, have mercy on us). Interestingly, it was here in this orchestra-only movement that the music reached its emotional center. Beginning with sepulchrally deep and foreboding sounds from the very depths of the orchestra, it slowly builds with a long crescendo to a pain-filled and harrowing keening in the strings of tremendous emotional power. It ultimately subsides, but leaves one with a palpable sense of loss and feeling of remorse with the weight of what has just been told over the course of the past ninety minutes.
With its power to bring the listener into the drama of the Passion, to feel the agony it describes, to be there as witness at Calvary, and to be so strongly reproached directly by Christ, James MacMillan has created a drama that will not soon be forgotten by anyone who has heard or participated in its reenactment.