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Seven Difficult, Impressive Words From James MacMillan

The United States, country of paradoxes and riddles, has a funny (sometimes sad, at other times perplexing) way of dealing with its religious history. There are politicians who rule as if this were a Christian country when, politically, it isn’t… who are only too happy to exploit religious sentiment; pander to prejudice over reason. There are cultural administrators who develop paroxysms pretending this isn’t a Christian country, although given its cultural history, it is. Easter, however, the drive towards religio-cultural sterility stops for a while – and we can listen to works like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (as we did last Thursday--and, unlike last year, thankfully without the political-correctness disclaimer) or, intriguingly, the native Scot James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross last Friday at Strathmore.

Although a dozen years old, MacMillan’s work received its premiere performance in the region by Norman Scribner and the Choral Arts Society of Washington (ChASo). Composed for a BBC television series for Holy Week, it has recently gotten a shot in the arm with an – upon second hearing – excellent recording by Polyphony under Stephen Layton on hyperion. The work and the recording have received highest of praise; responding to it in ways I admittedly could not, after an initial hearing. All the more exciting to hear the work live then. If the ChASo and Scribner did not outright deliver the answer to the question as to why (or whether) MacMillan’s Seven last Words is indeed a great work, they handed over the key to it.

Far from being a self-explanatory, easily digestible piece of music (as suggested by a gushing American Record Guide reviewer), these seven words (the setting a choral tradition in line with Schütz, Haydn, and Dubois, who all found very different answers to the challenge of setting seven utterances coming to a total of some four dozen words) are purposely challenging, variously spiky and austere. At times even grating and harsh. But around every corner also lure beautiful and overwhelming moments. Whoever wouldn’t be moved by the outbreak of Pärt-reminiscent, crystalline beauty, showered with sudden rays of sunshine to the words of “Venite adoremus” in the third part, after “Verily, I say unto you…”? It follows and is followed by an ancient plainchant, two basses taking “Ecce Lignum Crucis” above a humming drone, then tenors repeating the same, then mezzos, and finally sopranos. All suggests the sound of what we think music in ancient Palestine might have sounded like. It is here that the music betrays its TV roots; it appeared, even without the knowledge of its first such use, a sophisticated soundtrack for The Passion of the Christ or somesuch other film.

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J.MacMillan, Seven Last Words From the Cross et al.,
S.Layton / Polyphony

Alas, here, as throughout the work, there are abrupt changes in vocal, choral, and sometimes orchestral line that don’t make for easy following of the music. Understanding what the composer aims for helps tremendously in appreciating it as music. (Much like you don’t understand a word if someone quickly spoke to you in English when you expected French but, knowing it to be English, naturally understand everything). The edges and corners MacMillan throws into the music ensure that repeated listening produces increasingly greater enjoyment. Rhythmically the work tends to be simple, the tension it builds comes from attacking tonality from all sides, never leaving it but rarely settling in it comfortably. In Bach’s Matthew Passion, Jesus loses his halo (in form of the first orchestra's strings that always accompany him) as he loses faith and utters the words “Eli, Eli lama sabachthani?” In MacMillan, surely influenced by that work, if less audibly so to my ears than other commentators, that scene is set to a dark, sharp-edged music, if not too different from most of the broodingly shimmering rest of the work.

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The basses growl “I thirst” in the fifth section, the high voices shriek out the Good Friday reproaches. Part six, “It is finished,” displays the kind of doom that every commentator and MacMillan himself, perhaps, hear Shostakovich in – I hear Bernard Herrmann in it and the jagged attacks from the Psycho soundtrack hacking away like scavenging birds on a corpse. It ends with barely breathed, many small whimpers after which the composer specifically asked that no applause take place. Still holding his hands up, Norman Scribner walked off the stage, ensuring only a few ill contained bursts of applause.

Despite its difficulties, despite some curious choices (most of which become more logical upon repeated exposure), despite its stark nature, this may well be the best Anglo-American large-scale sacred composition I have heard since Adams’ El Niño and Lauridsen’s (somewhat sweet) Lux Æterna (both of which The Seven last Words actually predates). Far more inspired, inspiring, and moving than the samba, mambo, salsa-influenced, maracas-touting, semi-mediocre, pseudo-religious Masses and passions that have been performed and recorded in the last decade. The whole being greater than the sum of its parts, the ChASo’s performance made me revisit and thoroughly appreciate the recording with its more precise, clean, and better-defined chorus than this (still very good) live performance offered. The largest quibble: if you have to ask people not to applaud (because it’s such a very meaningful work, so sacred, oh-so moving), it’s probably a sign that you have failed on that account. It’s easily good enough a work to be enthusiastically or quizzically applauded. It’s not good enough for silence, reserved only for the most spiritual of Bruckner or most searing of Mahler performances.

Süssmayer at Mozart's deathbedFollowing MacMillan came the mostly-Mozart Requiem, K. 626; myth-laden, ever popular. Backed by a nearly 200-throat strong choir, it got a smooth, well-oiled, supple, and moving performance from Introitus full circle to Lux Aeterna. The chorus was excellent, the orchestra did what it was asked to do and did it well: no more and, more importantly, no less. The soloists were a fine Elizabeth Keusch (soprano, big voice, pleasant, lightly veiled), an equally fine bass in Mark Risinger, mezzo Linda Maguire (faux-operatic, affected, ineffective), and the overtaxed, lost-sounding tenor John McVeigh, who presented his strapping good looks but sounded like the roasted swan in Carmina Burana. None of these shortcomings prevented Scribner and his forces to give an appropriately moving, beautiful performance to which the crowd gave an enthusiastic reception.