Reviews of the MacMillan

Last night felt like a pretty successful performance of the piece — all our hard work paid off.  Something I realized, though, as the orchestra tuned up and I looked out at a Hall that was at best about two-thirds full… Holiday Pops performances are for the crowd, but BSO performances are for the music.  They can like it or leave it — and, yes, a few people got up and left in the middle of the piece, and I think some did not return after intermission — but we’re performing it because the music must be performed.

The first review has come in.  Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe, known for being a bit curmudgeonly about the Boston music scene, wrote a review briefly praising the performances of the soloist, conductor, and choruses:

The soloist (here the excellent Christopher Maltman)…. The performance under Davis was exemplary, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in particular doing superb work with such a demanding score.

He spends most of the review criticizing the piece compositionally,

MacMillan’s work has many fascinating moments and some inspired passages of choral and instrumental writing. But last night the score, to these ears, did not add up to more than the sum of its parts….

But it was hard to discern a unifying compositional voice amidst the deluge of influences (from Bach to Lutoslawski). MacMillan has a knack for theatrical gestures, but the parts I found most compelling were the least pictorial moments, when the composer freed himself from literal representation of the narrative and let his formidable sonic imagination roam, as in the absorbing final movement, full of muscular and expansive orchestral writing. MacMillan generally struggled to draw out the universal tropes from the particulars of this narrative, but when he did, the work blossomed, as in the music written for the poignant meeting of Jesus and his mother.

I will agree on one thing … I don’t think the music has a unifying compositional voice amidst the deluge of influences.. I’m not sure it’s intended to.  MacMillan effectively told us that himself when he sat and spoke with us, that he was influenced from a lot of different musical directions, that this is what happens when liturgical chant and opera (and Scottish traditions) collide.  The difference of course is I think it works, and Eichler does not.

Another article appeared in the Berkshire Review this morning, but it was a preview article.  It reviews the London Symphony Orchestra recording, “whether or not you are going to the BSO performances this week.”  It also had some prophetic words as well:

The first question—unfortunately—even relatively experienced listeners of contemporary music ask is “just who is this guy?” which can be translated as “is he conservative or experimental? Am I going to be able to sit through it?” Last week at Carnegie Hall I saw a few people walk out at the prospect of twelve minutes of Schoenberg. At ninety minutes MacMillan’s Passion will require somewhat more patience, but I can reassure the fearful that anyone who is familiar with Britten will be comfortable with MacMillan, although his style ranges freely from medieval models to the harshly dissonant and the microtonal. I believe the audience will be struck by the Passion as an intense dramatic narrative alternating with the contemplative, which is already inherent in much of the Catholic and Protestant Good Friday liturgies, as well as J. S. Bach’s Lutheran treatments.

9 responses to “Reviews of the MacMillan

  1. Thank you so much for the blog! I’m a choral singer, and it’s been whole lot of fun reading about the TFC (my idols since the 1985 “Gerontius”) and what it’s like to put together a piece like MacMillan’s “Passion.” I’ve been listening to the LSO recording for much of the last two weeks, and I think it’s an extraordinary work. I’ll be there on Saturday, I can’t wait to hear it in person, and there’s no way I’m leaving at halftime unless I have food poisoning or the croup!

  2. Thanks for writing, oddjob! I hope you enjoy the concert Saturday. (My last Sir Colin Davis experience was with our recent performance of the Gerontius… man, do I love that piece.) Since we’ve been using that recording to help study, I think you’ll hear a lot of similarities in interpretation, though of course the London choruses tend to go for a purer sound with less vibrato, while the TFC leans toward a more operatic / soloistic style. And… don’t tell anyone… there are a few wrong notes and rhythms in the LSO recording here and there… shhhh! We had to unlearn a few bad habits that we got from the recording along the way.

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  4. Thanks for commenting, on the Globe site, on Eichler’s review and including a link that led me to this blog, where I have hop-scotched through your posts as the computer generated further suggestions.

    I was at the Thursday performance, and I find your thoughts about the piece as you learned it to be very perceptive. I was also very struck by the use of the altar bell, by the Narrator Chorus’s chant, by the “Tu es Petrus,” and by something that I haven’t seen explicitly mentioned — what struck me as a quote of the timpani from the Death March in Siegfried, brilliantly inserted, if I recall at the moment of sentencing rather than death, because Jesus’s death march was the Way of the Cross, which began with the sentence.

    I think it is a brilliant piece. I think it’s musically successful, but I’m no musicologist. I’m sure that it’s successful as a Catholic presentation of the mystery of the passion and death of Our Lord.

    I hope the BSO and TFC will perform it again soon.

  5. I thought the concert was excellent, with much-deserved cheers for the TFC at the end. The piece itself is interesting, I think, but not a masterpiece on the scale of Bach’s St. John; MacMillan often seemed to reuse themes or motifs without fully reimagining them in their new context. It worked as a way to link events, emotions, and characters, but I wonder if it was used to maximum artistic advantage. The 6th movement, however, is one of the more hair-raising passages I’ve ever heard, thanks to the glissandos. A Herculean effort, and bravos all around.

    I was surprised at the small size of the audience; were you (if you noticed)? It’s certainly a hard piece to listen to, but I can’t recall another concert where entire rows of the orchestra have been nearly empty. I’m ashamed of my compatriots!

  6. I am also just a bass!. There is a review of the BSO Concert on the Classical Source, too, in case you missed it. But was the chorus and narrator chorus all from Tanglewood?. If so were all singers amateurs?. As you know the narrator chorus on the LSO Live CDs was made up of pros (very good ones too, as was the case at Sunday’s Barbican performance again under Sir Colin. The Concert Programme is downloadable on the LSO’s website if you are interested). Was the concert broadcast?. The King’s College Cambridge performance on Good Friday is meant to be the first live broadcast of the work (it will be on BBC Radio 3 live from 7pm UK time) . By the way I had the privilege to sing with some Tanglewood singers in a BBC Proms performance of The Mask of Time (Tippett) some years back. Wonder if you were there!.

    • Hi Ted, thanks for the comments! I think I did hear about a review on Classical Source, lemme look that up and link from it. I also have been meaning to jot down some final thoughts about the concert; maybe I’ll do that this week while it’s still somewhat fresh in my head.

      Yes, both choruses were amateur singers from the TFC. I really admire what the narrator chorus had to go through to learn all that and achieve uniformity of sound. I believe the concert WAS broadcast on WCRB (99.5 FM in Boston, and online at and I’m pretty sure it was done live. I don’t think that will really take anything away from the King’s College Cambridge performance… I do sort of wish ours could have been on Good Friday (that privilege now seems to be reserved for the upcoming performance of Mendelssohn’s “Elias” this year).

      I don’t think I was around for The Mask of Time, as it doesn’t sound familiar… but I certainly haven’t been on the roster for every concert over the last 14 years or so in the chorus.

      Thanks for checking in!

  7. Jeff, you are right that WCRB broadcast the concert live. It was the Saturday evening performance.

    I’ve looked on the WCRB/WGBH website — — and I can’t find a way to get a rehearing from the. It is possible to follow some links from there to a BSO page — — but although it offers podcasts, it does not appear to provide a way to hear the actual performance, just some preview videos and program notes.

    Maybe working from “within” you can encourage the BSO to make the performances themselves available for “on demand” listening. Especially now that the Friday afternoon concerts are no longer being broadcast, it would be good for the BSO to make these things available.

    • Thanks for the comment! I’m pretty sure that there is no way for WGBH (or any radio station) to permit a way to hear the rebroadcast of the actual performance as an on demand event, because of the business issues involved. Once you archive the performance and allow people to listen to it, it becomes a recording, not a broadcast. That means union workers (i.e., orchestra members) need to be paid for it. That puts it out of the price range of a GBH.

      All the performances ARE recorded for “archive purposes”, they’re just not distributed — I know that because we often receive a practice CD recording that’s from a previous performance (sometimes even with the same conductor!) It’s very handy… but we’re told to destroy or return the CD’s after use for exactly these reasons — they’re not authorized recordings, musicians are not being paid for them, etc., etc. (Prime example: the Pops selling the “12 Days of Christmas” MP3 as a $3 download during the holiday season.)

      It’s a shame that the Friday afternoon concerts aren’t broadcast any more. What little I know of the financials of these performances is that organizations like the BSO, despite ticket revenues and album sales and whatnot, still operate at a very heavy loss and absolutely depend on donations and sponsorships in order to stay afloat.

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