Category Archives: MacMillan

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.

Lunch with the composer

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus had the distinct pleasure of being able to have lunch with James MacMillan today during the break between the morning and the afternoon orchestra rehearsals.  A good 40 or 50 people took him up on the offer and we crammed into a conference room upstairs.  He thanked us profusely for our attention and study of the piece and complimented us on how great it sounded in rehearsal.  Then we peppered him with questions, which he graciously answered.  (I wondered if our brash American vowels sounded as quaint to him as his Scottish brogue did to our ears.)  I took some notes, below… they’re a mixture of direct quotes and answer paraphrases.

On why he chose the St. John version of the Passion story over the other Gospel versions
MacMillan grew up attending Good Friday services.  He has regularly sung Gregorian chant versions of the Passion story.  He knew the St. John version of the story first.  That said, he’s hoping to some day write another Passion exploring one of the other texts as well.

On why the Resurrection isn’t included in the Passion story, even though John’s gospel covers it.
MacMillan “wanted to avoid the temptation to be bombastic” by including the Resurrection in this piece.  He feels it must be treated with intimacy and mystery, and happen in a quieter place.  He hopes to complete John’s gospel by setting the Resurrection story to music some day, though he imagines something like 5 singers and 5 instruments to achieve that austerity.

On why he included the “Reproaches,” and the assertions by some that this piece is anti-Semitic for including it
Like the interludes at the end of the other movements, it is a liturgical tool.  “No sane Catholic would see these words as accusing the Jews of killing Christ.”  The Reproaches have been musically set by other composers as well, so there’s certainly precedent for including them in a work.  More practically, including the Reproaches solves another issue: “There’s not a lot for Christ to sing.”  As he composed the piece, MacMillan had thought about making a special movement, an aria of sorts, for Jesus to sing.  The Reproaches fit that role nicely.

On why an orchestra-only 10th movement, when the piece could have ended after the 9th movement
I loved his answer for this one.  MacMillan said the amazing thing about Schumann is how the piano continues on a postlude… “the music goes on to a place where words can’t go.”  He wanted to take this lesson from history and do something similar here.  While the 10th movement is not a continuation of the music from the rest of the piece, it provides a chance for reflection, a song without words, that is needed to wrap up the piece.

On the role of Pontius Pilate, and what the basses can do to personify him besides being angry all the time
Movement three “is a courtroom battle, with Pilate and Christ trying to out do each other, pitting their wits against each other.”  Pilate’s character is certainly an angry role, but he’s also a character with “guile.”  MacMillan mentioned that he chose to have only one soloist for economic reasons.  He complimented the choruses on “the fact that you come across as one unit” while singing the role.

On the role of Peter, and the juxtaposition of themes in the 2nd movement.
MacMillan was very conscious of how Peter, as cowardly as the rest of us, denying Jesus in the face of violence, could then be chosen to be the head of Christ’s church.  He really wanted “to play about this paradox between Peter the fallen human, the coward that we all are, and Peter as the first Pope.”

On the role of Jesus and the heavy melismatic writing
It was difficult to know how to treat Christus, and MacMillan is sure there might be other ways.  (He’s hoping to explore some of those options if he goes back and tries a different gospel’s Passion story, though he assured us that that will also include easier choral music so more choruses and organizations can perform them.)  He wanted his voice “to be different from all others in the piece.”  And, MacMillan loves writing melismatic lines any ways (he commented that maybe he went even a little too far here).  But there’s “something about Christ’s words which lend themselves to melisma.)

On the role of the narrator chorus, and whether the singers should be emotionally involved or detached from the storytelling
The narrator chorus is both detached and emotional.  Having heard the piece now performed in three different countries, MacMillan has noticed “a different accent for each nation as they sing the narrator chorus.”  For instance, the British choruses are slightly more detached.  He noted, though, that in these rehearsals, Sir Colin Davis has been asking for (and receiving) more emotion from our American narrator chorus.  He commented that it sounded like we wanted to give it, and make that more visceral connection, so it was certainly appropriate.

On whether he’s ever thought of making adjustments to the piece or if he could truly call it done
“When I was younger, I would tinker with things” after he had finished composing them.  But now, with his experience, MacMillan states he’s become better at knowing what to expect “when what’s on paper becomes flesh, as it were.”  So no, he has had a pretty clear idea of what he wants to accomplish and he knew what would work before it was ever first sung.

On whether he’s ever considered splitting up the St. John Passion and publishing smaller parts of it for commercial potential
MacMillan hadn’t decided yet, and hadn’t given too much thought to this while composing it, but he does feel that some of the reflections after the movements could work as church choral pieces.  In fact, the Stabat Mater portion of movement 7, Jesus and his Mother, already exists as an unaccompanied published piece under the name Fiat Mihi.  (I think many choral members will be looking that one up.)

On Eastern, Scottish bagpipes, and other musical influences on his composition style
MacMillan noted that the Catholic church has its roots in the synagogue.  He admitted he was “fascinated with non-European music, more ethnic music, including Arabian.”  He also noted his familiarity with Gregorian chant, and cited its influence, especially with the style of the narrator chorus.  He considers this work what happens when chant and opera “meet and do battle together.”

Scottish music definitely has a tradition of being very heavily embellished (yes, including bagpipes).  MacMillan confessed that Scottish music “is under my skin.”  He also remarked that many of the themes borrowed for this piece are of Scottish or Gallic origin.  He cited the melody in the brass in the 10th movement, noting that it’s a setting of a Sanctus used in Scotland and Anglican services… “any churchgoer in the UK would recognize it immediately, but here in the States it’s more likely to go unnoticed.” [Update: Peter Pulsifer from the chorus points out that this Sanctus is actually MacMillan’s own setting of the Sanctus from his St. Anne’s Mass… MacMillan quoting MacMillan!  Though it is apparently quite popular.] There are nods like this throughout the piece, “genuflections to tradition.”  As MacMillan said, “the ghost of Bach was floating over my head” as he wrote the piece, because you can’t write a Passion without acknowledging, or in this case embracing, his influence — even going so far as to include the melody he made famous in his chorales.  He included homages to Bach, Wagner and… Victoria?  He wanted to take these 3 pillars and bring them into this piece so it could be part of that tradition.  Why Wagner?  “Wagner had provided the way forward for composers.”  Besides, “composers shouldn’t worry about borrowing… so just steal as much as you can!”

On his 21st century music not sounding like other crazy 21st century compositions
“Fundamentally, I’m an old-fashioned composer” who values tradition and doesn’t take the high-minded modern idea that the past is not useful.  He does not take an iconoclastic attitude toward tonality.  Sure, “there are obvious chromatic stretches and they create tension, but it’s all rooted in something.”

Thoughts from the MacMillan piano rehearsal

Just got back a few hours ago from today’s piano rehearsal with Sir Colin Davis.  It was really a great rehearsal through and through.  A few items of interest:

Narrator chorus. Our narrator chorus is awesome.  That said, the conductor worked a really long time with them on a lot of things to get the characterization he wanted out of them.   You could hear them getting better and better with each adjustment.  His overall message to them was “less voice, more text.”  They’re not singing anything musically interesting, per se — they’re the storyteller, holding together the flow and pacing of the tale.  So he had to remind them several times to pull back on the volume, and at the same time keep it interesting.  He also really held their feet to the fire on holding on to those vowels and placing the consonants correctly and with authority, again with an emphasis on intelligibility to the audience.  My favorite direction he gave them was to ANNOUNCE the story, with that level of intensity and diction as if they were issuing a proclamation.  That bumped the narrator chorus up a couple notches further on the awesome scale once they internalized that guidance.

The basses’ recitative. The chorus manager gave us a “friendly reminder” that we basses are supposed to be completely off-book for all of the Pontius Pilate lines we have — the implication that it would not be so friendly tomorrow if we were staring at the score.  From the mutterings in my section, it was pretty clear that many of us thought we knew everything by heart, but once you’re out there alone on a singing island (and us 4th row folks don’t have anyone behind us), against those irregular rhythms and is-it-one-or-two-beats rest patterns, you can get a little … tentative. Hitting the books a bit more tomorrow before tomorrow’s orchestra rehearsal.

Jesus. We only got a few brief glimpses of the power of our baritone, Christopher Maltman, as he was at the rehearsal and sang a few lead-ins to help us with transitions between his parts and the rest of ours… but it really was great.  He’s the voice on the LSO recording, quite possibly the only person who’s ever sung this role in concert.  He has a very rich, powerfully deep voice, full of color, with just the right amount of vibrato — perfect for the complex lines which MacMillan has written for Jesus.  He’ll be able to reflect the ornamentals and grace notes and glissandos without sounding like he’s just warbling and wobbling his way through it.   The only funny thing is he looked so unassuming up there, sort of a Daniel Faraday of Lost, with his short trimmed beard and thin stature. One expects a plus-sized man with that full voice!

Sir Colin Davis. It is such a pleasure to work with Sir Colin Davis.  This man is 82, now… he’s not moving too fast when he’s walking to or from the podium.  But when he’s there, he is just a master.  Easy and clear to follow.  Knows what he wants and how to get it.  He’s not shy to criticize but he does so in a positive fashion, and he never hesitates to offer praise when the chorus does well.  He’s of the school of thought where he’ll say, “That’s great, really great… but you can make it better if you…” which I think most choristers prefer.  And of course his musical instincts are finely honed.  It’s just an honor to be on stage with him.  This will be my third performance with him, the others being Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and before that Berlioz’s Te Deum.  (He thanked us for the Te Deum specifically, saying it was wonderful, but that the piece “almost killed me” with the Friday afternoon performance following directly after the Thursday evening one.  No kidding!  That piece was a monster.)

Best one-liner. Normally the one-liners go to John Oliver, but Sir Colin Davis had a few.  After a few failed entrances by the chorus he urged us to keep up with the pacing of his accelerando and to watch.  “After all, this,” he said, indicating his baton,”is all we’ve got to go on.”  Given how little of the chorus is doubled by the orchestra, we whole-heartedly agree!

Great article about the Passion in today’s Boston Globe

There’s a great write-up about James MacMillan’s St. John’s Passion in the Sunday Boston Globe.  This is a rare treat, as usually coverage of the Symphony is relegated to the Friday paper reviewing the Thursday night opening performance.

Some of my favorite quotes:

Although Davis has since conducted another set of performances with the Concertgebouw, he still finds himself a bit daunted by the piece.

“I open up the score and think, ‘Oh my God, how did I ever do this?’ ’’ says the conductor, now 82, with a tentative laugh. “And you work again at the difficult bits, and you hope that, when you get there, you’ll be able to pull yourself together and do this.’’

It’s nice to know that it’s not just the chorus sometimes asking ourselves how we got into this as we’re drilling ourselves on some of the more intricate passages of the piece.

MacMillan comments on the “halo effect” that  I noted in an earlier post that distinguish every utterance from Jesus:

The writing for the baritone soloist is unusually florid – long, ornate melodies on a single syllable that mark Christ out as different from those who surround him. “I wanted to give Christ’s words a special emphasis that would have a different character from all the other voices,’’ says the composer.

There’s also a deep discussion about how remarkable the close of the second movement is, another point I marveled at earlier while memorizing that part:

One of the most striking of these reflective moments occurs when Peter, having denied three times that he knows Christ, hears the cock crow, just as Jesus had prophesied. As the wrenching moment concludes, MacMillan writes a fulsome chorus on the text “Tu es Petrus”: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my church.” It’s a remarkable dichotomy: a disciple’s most pitiable moment juxtaposed with his role as the first shepherd of the church.

“At that moment, he’s being a coward, he’s being a typical human being,” MacMillan explains. “And yet Peter was the one who was chosen as the foundation stone of the whole ecclesial movement that came out of Christ’s life here.

“There is something contradictory about that. But also strangely affirming – the fact that there’s a divine acknowledgement that we are all human, we can all fail, but yet the church’s role is to face up to the dilemmas of our humanity.”

All in all, a very good article that I plan to send along to friends and family interested in what makes this piece tick.

Follow up to “Gimmicks…”

A few follow up thoughts on my recent post:

I shared that post with our internal chorus list.  Another chorister, Peter Pulsifer, had some great insights on the “very fast recitation of text, continually repeated on given pitches, voices should not be together” in movement 3 that I admitted had stumped me.  His words:

“It’s like the rustling of millions of voices in heaven – which can be beautiful or – if you have something to hide – can inspire paranoia. It’s interesting how MacMillan has set this angry, odious text (“For a few denarii Judas betrayed Christ with a kiss. It would be better had he never been born”) as a lament. I find it very moving.

The same effect is found in Britten’s War Requiem, where the choir rapidly repeats “pleni sunt coeli…” to start the Sanctus – glorious! The emotion is quite different there, of course.

I have to agree with Peter’s interpretation.  Great stuff!

Secondly, another chorister simultaneously wrote down some thoughts about the piece and shared them on that same list.  You can read Tim Jarrett’s thoughts about preparing to sing the St. John Passion on his blog post here.  My favorite part of his analysis is at the end:

But it’s the Stabat Mater in part 7 that really brings home the genius of all the moving parts of the work, with narrator chorus describing the fate of Mary, the inner voices sing the Latin poem in a breathtaking melismatic canon of fourths and fifths… and the outer voices (soprano and bass) sing a gentle lullaby to the deceased Christ, all at the same time–before closing on a quote from Bach made utterly personal: “Your sacred head is wounded.” It’s one of those moments outside of time that don’t come along too often in symphonic repertoire.

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised that the composer himself left a comment on my post.  I’m thinking that Beethoven never stopped by to comment on a blog regarding the 9th Symphony.  Mr. MacMillan, we all hope to meet you next week and maybe glean any insights from you before realizing your work on stage.  As John Oliver closed the rehearsal last week, he commented on how remarkable it is to find some 200 people who share the same musical sensibilities and can come together and dedicate themselves to memorizing and internalizing a choral piece such as this one.   It’s been a challenging pleasure to immerse ourself into your work and we hope to do it justice.

Rationalizing the Gimmicks of MacMillan

Okay, so, there are a lot of… ummmm… I’ll call them “gimmicks…”  in James MacMillan’s St. John’s Passion.  They are the sort of thing that occasionally have choristers shaking their heads, laughing out loud, or just wondering “What the…?”  It’s true, many modern composers have, in the interests of stretching the boundaries of what could be defined as classical music, done all sorts of strange things in their compositions.  I remember stories from my wife about singing a particular piece of “Chance Music” at Westminster that involved instructions like “solo bass leaves the stage,” “everyone whisper your phone number all at once,” “pick a note and sing it,” and “turn around in place and recite your address.”  It was just bizarre.

But unlike that craziness, I really think that all these unusual elements of this Passion really have a place.  I decided I’d throw down my thoughts as to why they exist.

The tone clusters in movement 1. Certainly the first time I heard this casually listening, it sounded like a train wreck.  Twelve parts each singing the same line a whole or half step above the previous one?  Put together there’s no discernable melody, just a massive movement of sound in a general direction.  Stupid, right?  Except look at the text.  This Latin is actually the entire raison d’être of the Catholic Mass — the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  For a devout Catholic like MacMillan who has heard the crucifixion story sung or recited every Good Friday  (as mentioned in the liner notes), this is a Big Deal.  This is something mystical, almost magical.  This deserves to be set apart from everything else.  I think the tone clusters do a great job of communicating mystery and mysticism, to say “hey — something’s going on here, and you aren’t quite going to figure it out.”

Jesus’s crazy ornamentals. The first time I heard one of Jesus’s lines, I found myself saying “spit it out, man, spit it out.”  The halted, extremely ornamented, wandering lines don’t make for the kind of tune you’d idly whistle as you worked on something.  But just like the strings provided a halo around the Jesus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, I find that the grace notes, trills, glides, and bizarre rhythms provide their own sort of otherworldly halo.  It’s impossible not to know when Jesus is singing… just like Pontius Pilate’s 7/8 time signatures, odd near-octave intervals, and goofy snake-in-the-grass percussion effects give Pilate his own distinct voice in movements 3 and 4.

The frequent stretto entrances by the crowds throughout several movements. Regularly throughout the piece, the chorus takes on the role of crowds of people, and sing a canonical passage with entrances just a few beats apart.  Rather than interlocking together like a nice fugue or a Pachebel’s Canon, instead it’s voices falling on top of voices, making it hard to understand the text or see any rhyme or reason to the melody.  When we first started learning these, I thought they were just a pain in the butt.  Having now mostly absorbed the piece, I see how fantastic a job they do at communicating the concept of mobs of angry crowds.  Listen to the women accusing Peter, the Jews saying Jesus should be put to death, the chief priests complaining about the title above his head.  It’s raw, it’s visceral, it’s full of violence.  As it should be.  They’re crucifying the guy, for Christ’s sake (literally).  A fugue with a happy little motif wouldn’t cut it.

The “mmmm-ahhhh-mmmmm” figures in movement 3. The upper voices of the narrator chorus don’t sing the text along with the basses as Jesus confronts Pilate, they instead alternate between humming and ahhhing in a strange vocalise accompaniment.  I find that this, along with many other parts of the piece, really serve to give it more of a film score quality.  MacMillan writes himself that this composition was heavily influenced by The Sacrifice, opera music he had just finished composing.  There are many other ‘movie moments’ in the piece — I particularly like the shift in the narrator chorus from telling the story to its half-lamenting finish at the end of movement 4, when “he handed him over to them to be crucified.”  To me, that sounds like a fight scene from a violent movie where they suddenly screw with the shutter speed or go to slow motion, like in the movie 300, maybe with the addition of some sad music to mark the passing of a hero.  Boromir’s death in The Fellowship of the Ring is a great example of this; I’m sure there are others.

The “glissando of indetermine pitch” in movement 6. Now here’s a very distinctive moment in the piece.  The narrator chorus breaks off their narration and “winds down” like a broken clock at the end of many phrases.  This definitely elicits nervous muffled laughter in the rehearsal room whenever we first approach it.  But when I first heard it, I found it chilling.  I literally had goosebumps and felt a shiver go up my spine.  Here we are in the story, Jesus is hanging on the cross, slowly dying, life slipping away.  And to insult him even more, the guards start gambling to split up what possessions he has left.  His life has hit absolute bottom, and the narrator chorus reflects it with this depressing, draining, can-it-get-any-worse effect that just epitomizes the hopelessness of the situation.  It’s all in the setup.  This moment wouldn’t have worked if you hadn’t just heard over an hour and five movements of the narrator chorus plodding along, telling the story, with only a few introspective moments where they break character.

The bells sounding off at the end of movements 1, 7, and 10. I thought these very odd instruments to hear in an orchestral piece… until I thought back to my Catholic Mass going days and remembered the altar bells rung during “important” parts of the service to let you know the Eucharist was present.  They pretty much sound the same.  Hearing them in this context makes sense to me after 1 and 10… but I admit it’s a bit of a mystery after #7.  It does make for a touching end to a very emotional scene.

The “howling gliss” of the squealing and squawking woodwinds, in movement 3 and in the final orchestral movement 10. Oh, what is that awful noise?  Exactly.  These add a dissonance at just the right time, to highlight the madness of the whole story… a guy who reportedly is the son of a god, possibly The Only God, and he’s being killed by the people he was sent to save?  These howling clarinets, coupled with the somewhat strangled fanfare when Jesus talks about his kingdom, are a protest against how screwed up the whole situation is.  In fact, one of my favorite moments of the entire piece is in that last movement, when the low strings and brass pick up that majestic theme, and the woodwinds all try to drown it out with their clamoring repetition of the same short howling motif.  Emotionally to me it communicates that there’s a reason, a purpose, a master plan, and all the crowds and critics and conspiring forces that are trying to assault it can’t knock it off its moorings.

The “very fast recitation of text, continually repeated on given pitches, voices should not be together” in movement 3. Ummm… okay I can’t explain this one.  🙂  To me it’s the next level up from the sort of rhythmic hushed chanting of Liberame domine de mortae aeterna in die illa tremenda in the Verdi Requiem.  MacMillan did participate in a lot of liturgical chanting… I can only assume he wanted that same effect here.  Any ideas out there?

Rehearsal last night kicked ass

Last night’s rehearsal was both narrator chorus and large chorus, for the first time since October.  It really made me even more excited about the piece.  We’re still fighting through some notes and rhythms here and there, but I think that was to be expected.  What’s really exciting to me is that we’re making the emotional connection with the piece, and that’s so very important for what’s essentially an opera rather than a tone poem or some sort of symphonic piece.

Our narrator chorus is particularly impressive.  I’m especially pleased with the way the sopranos sound, since they have to achieve these floating high notes with light texture in some places.  Some of the crazy lines the narrator chorus has to sing have exquisite ornamentals that really twist and turn, but they’re nailing them.  John Oliver joked about the tediousness of their narrator-chorus-only rehearsals: “Can you imagine, line after line of ‘And he said’, ‘And Jesus said,’ ‘And they said’ ?”  Putting it all together is a relief for both choruses.

As for memorization, I don’t think I saw anyone without the book in their hand.  I tried whenever possible to close the thing so I wouldn’t rely on it — technically it was our “off book” rehearsal, but ever since John Oliver and Sir Colin Davis made the decision to allow us to keep the scores on stage, no one’s been up tight about glances here and there.  It’s clear though that for some passages we NEED to be looking up to catch an accelerando or rallentando if we don’t want to get left behind.  For instance, at one point some of the women finished a particularly tough passage about 1 bar after the rest of the chorus.  John looked at them and said, “Oh, you must have the revised edition.”

Tomorrow we do the remaining movements and see where we’re at.  I feel like I have the whole piece down now (sort of), and could perform it shakily from memory at gunpoint if I had to.