Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Sir Colin Davis conducts James Macmillan’s St. John Passion with the BSO

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Sir Colin Davis
Sir Colin Davis

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Friday, January 22, 8 p.m.

James Macmillan, St. John Passion (American premiere; BSO co-commission)
Sir Colin Davis, conductor
Christopher Maltman, baritone
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
John Oliver, conductor

For more details about James MacMillan, his background, and his purposes in writing his St. John Passion, I’ll refer the reader to the review of the superb LSO Live recording of the work, which I published as an introduction to this concert, its U.S. premiere. MacMillan wrote the Passion as an 80th birthday tribute to Sir Colin Davis, and it was jointly commissioned by the London and Boston Symphony Orchestras. An Ayrshire Catholic of Irish extraction, James MacMillan became connected to music early, and his experience with the Passion according to St. John goes back to the traditional chanted readings of the text as part of the Good Friday liturgy. While most of the work consists straightforwardly of the Gospel narrative and the Improperia from the Roman Catholic Good Friday Mass, its selection and musical treatment are highly personal, giving it a dramatic and humanistic quality, which must please Sir Colin no end.

While anyone who has followed with any sympathy the treatment of non-conforming individuals by totalitarian regimes in our own time will be moved by MacMillan’s work, its origins lie in the composer’s faith, which means a great deal to him, as do political injustice and other social issues in the contemporary world. It is worth noting that his great classic precedents, the Passions of Heinrich Schütz and J. S. Bach, emerged from the Lutheran tradition, in which the congregation played an active role through the hymn settings, interspersed among narrative, dramatic situations, and soliloquizing arias. MacMillan belongs to a generation that is equally aware of the great earlier settings by Catholic composers like Byrd and Lassus, as well as contemporaries like Pärt, Penderecki, and others. Hence he can remain true to his Catholic tradition, while bringing in certain Protestant conventions, like the baritone singing the part of Jesus Christ. Quotations from the Latin Vulgate and Missal take the place of the meditative arias and choruses. More individual is his decision to conclude the work with a substantial, Mahleresque orchestral movement, which takes his reflections on the Passion beyond words.

MacMillan’s Passion is also a richly allusive work. Wagner, Stravinsky, and many other precedents are ubiquitous, either in fleeting or emphatic allusions. Sometimes these underscore dramatic moments, and at other times they mark structural signposts. As for shape and structure, anyone who is familiar with the Catholic or Anglican Good Friday liturgy will follow the course the composer has chosen. The work gains much of its power from the momentum of St. John’s Passion story, as well as from the composer’s convictions and faith.

In hearing this work in Symphony Hall, so handsomely sung by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and baritone Christopher Maltman, and so eloquently played by the BSO, I was immediately struck by the sheer beauty of MacMillan’s writing, even in its most dissonant parts. Sir Colin clearly revelled in sounds themselves, but never lost touch with their dramatic and spiritual import. I mentioned some shortcoming in the generally excellent recording: here, freed from these limitations, Maltman’s rich, dark, voice, fully integrated from bottom to top, could be admired for its own physical qualities, apart from his tough, uncompromising portrayal of Christ, as a brave man, who is ready to face what he knows is in store for him. The chorus was entirely open in the Symphony Hall acoustic: phrases like the repeated “Jesus of Nazareth,” sung by the large chorus, were deeply chilling. Apart from the craftsmanship in balance, texture, and color, I was awed by the seriousness and momentousness of the Passion narrative, and especially by the absence of churchy clichés and sentimentality in MacMillan’s treatment. Sir Colin’s direction was entirely down-to-earth, rooted in the human drama of the work, and concentrated on keeping the balances, flow, and proportions in order. It is entirely free of piousness or mysticism of the sort that is extremely moving in another deeply humanistic work of Roman Catholic inspiration, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius—but that belongs to another time and place.

The playing of the BSO and the singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus were impeccable, and contributed much to the effect I have described above. The Chorus’s diction was so clear that even the large chorus was understandable, and they sang as if they actually understood the text. On the other hand, they seemed slightly uncomfortably with the elaborated melismata and other ornaments, MacMillan wrote into the music of both the large and the small narrative chorus. These were neatly sung, but just a trifle stiffly and effortfully. The London Symphony Chorus, a great choir in itself, surpassed them in this, singing as if they were steeped in the tradition. Quite possibly more of them have had long-term experience in singing chant in Anglican and Catholic churches.

Symphony Hall was by no means full, but the turnout was respectable. Many in the audience looked as if they were not regular attenders. Above all, the applause was most enthusiastic and long-lasting. Both Sir Colin and the composer, who appeared on stage, as well as orchestra and chorus appeared to find the appreciation of their hard work most gratifying.

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