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Ancient Supplications in Astonishing Song

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater
11/07/2019 -  
James MacMillan: Miserere – Stabat Mater (American Premieres)
Britten Sinfonia, The Sixteen, Harry Christophers (Conductor)

The Sixteen, Britten Sinfonia, H. Christophers

Music helps give us a vision that is well beyond the horizons of the materialism and consumerism of our contemporary society. What is music, after all? You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, you can’t eat it, but its palpable presence always makes itself felt: not just in a physical way, but in a way that reaches down in the crevices of our souls.
James MacMillan (1959–), in Playbill

I hate analysis, I can’t think of anything more boring. You have to have faith in your own ideas, because copying someone else ends in utter disaster. Read the words, know what they mean. Try and get into the head of the composer.
Harry Christophers (1953– ) to interviewer Victoria Finlay, South China Morning Post

Composer James MacMillan and conductor Harry Christophers are inevitably described as “eminent” and/or “distinguished” personages. They probably are. Yet when one watches or listens to either personage (sorry!), more personal adjectives are needed. Mr. Christophers, whose original all-male The Sixteen has branched out in gender and number (26), but his ensemble preserves the same feeling of spontaneity. Now in his 40th year since founding the group, Mr. Christophers could lead them with a few gestures. But he seems to improvise his movements, he somehow gesticulates both warmth and utmost personal fondness for this ensemble. In even in the most emotional passages–and they were manifold in last night’s performance for the White Light Festival–he never loses sight of the music’s preeminent beauty.

James MacMillan, present in Alice Tully Hall last night, precludes the word “eminence” because his recent compositions, complex and contemporary, are so accessible, because his feelings never shrink into the mechanics of the music, because, in the case of last night’s choral music, he has bitten into the Latin words and made them live.

Most unconventional of all, he is a true believer. An ardent Catholic, Mr. MacMillan–like Messiaen–embraces every religion, he finds the spiritual in all creatures (even humanity!). Last night that spirit took flight.

Previously I had heard (and been highly impressed with) his non-choral works. (I was going to say “secular” , but he obviously would find that confining.) His Violin Concerto was fervent, dance-like, eccentric. His Third String Quartet showed the same uncanny mastery of strings as he showed last night in the Britten Sinfonia, the string ensemble which accompanied The Sixteen.

Mr. Christophers’ two ensembles gave us two MacMillan choral works, Miserere, and Stabat Mater. The former had been monopolized by Gregorio Allegri (and the anecdotes are too multitudinous for this column). Stabat Mater been composed by literally hundreds of composers, from Bach and Vivaldi to Pergolesi, Verdi and even Szymanowski. What they all had in common was stately often inspired music which could have fit any liturgical or secular words. And when one hears, say, the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, which this writer did a month ago, the review was about the music and the performers. Not the meaning of the verse itself.

J. MacMillan (© Hans van der Woer)

Mr. MacMillan eschewed even the possibility of mere music-making. His Stabat Mater, both voices and strings almost literally wept. Within this one-hour work, one heard trembling, whispering, crying for comfort. Not literally, of course, but through a passion of almost unearthly intensity.

For the 13th Century Stabat Mater is not actually a prayer. In fact, like Bach’s Passions, like Messiah, it is drama, a story, an editorial commentary on the vision of Mary seeing her son on the cross. It was this drama which Mr. MacMillan captured.

He summoned up atmospheres with string legerdemain, the stuff which Bach would have used. Exaggerated low bow pressure to summon up the atmosphere, pizzicati bounding off the fingerboard for woes, glistening furious playing across the strings with and without vibrato. And tender, never mawkish pleas from violin, cello and viola solos.

Yet it was The Sixteen who transformed the words into belief. He might start with the full choral forces and strings, announcing the setting (“The sad mother was standing, weeping...”) . Yet almost immediately, Mr. MacMillan allowed the women to encapsulate the part of Mary. Their singing, in slow canonic form, with simple harmonies, was urging, tender...

The composer was unafraid to bring in complex harmonies when needed. But at another point, the entire choir sung in the most conventional four-part harmony, until going back to the massed voices, the female choir and a few solos.

By the end, the supplication, for the narrator to escape torments and torture, one expected a more heavenly glory. Instead, Mr. MacMillan ended with whispered repetitions of “Amen”...”Amen”... As if supplication wasn’t enough, offerings were insufficient. One could only speak with a rustling, semi-silent invocation.

Missing here was the Messiaen (and Bach) change of moods, of arias, of triumphs. Yet they weren’t missed at all. This was Mr. MacMillan’s understanding, his own fidelity.

The composer’s closeness to The Sixteen is a natural one, since this ensemble is at home with Renaissance motets as 21st Century music. In the Stabat Mater, one feels that a Machaut or Ockeghem would have brought their own beliefs to this music, with the same effect.

A shorter a capella work, Miserere, dedicated to The Sixteen, was no less complex, no less personal. Starting with the men chanting, rising to the full choir, the setting of Psalm 51 had the rich polyphony and surprises which even an Okeghem would admire.

One recognizes that this season will be inundated with innumerable examples of that old-time religious singing: Messiah, a Passion or two, and being bewitched, bothered and B Minor’ed. With Mr. MacMillan we felt something else. A tribute to music and musicians, of course. Equally, though, we felt the songs of human longing and, inevitably, even consciously through the Medieval and Biblical words, we heard songs of the earth.

Harry Rolnick



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