Darkness into Light: The Music of James MacMillan – Concerto and Choral

15 January, Barbican Hall
Cantos Sagrados [London premiere of orchestral version]
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum

Alison Balsam (trumpet)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

16 January, Barbican Hall
Í (A Meditation on Iona)
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

Colin Currie (percussion)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
James MacMillan


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 16 January, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sir Andrew Davis’s and the BBC Symphony Chorus’s second concert as part of the “Darkness into Light” series brought the London première of MacMillan’s orchestral version of Cantos Sagrados (Sacred Songs), which had been originally scored for small chorus and organ. Here with the massed voices of the – as ever – exemplary BBC Symphony Chorus, the visceral orchestration far better matches the horror of the trio of poems, the outer ones by Ariel Dorfman, the central verses by Ana Maria Mendoza, all three set with various parts of sacred Latin religious texts. The horror of the Chilean mass-murders and the anguished population’s discovery of yet more bodies, with the shattering orchestral stabbing chords at the opening made this as powerful a testament to 20th-century political and military tyranny as Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” (Symphony 13) or John Tavener’s “Akhmatova Requiem”.

MacMillan, in the programme, was quoted as saying that he hoped that his specific religious inspiration was not a barrier to a musical understanding of his work. Given my fundamental atheism I can concur that, for me, MacMillan’s overtly Catholic subjects are not a problem. Even his musical evocation of the tenet of faith, transubstantiation, in his trumpet concerto entitled Epiclesis (“invocation” – the liturgical prayer that occurs when the celebrant at the Holy Communion prays that God may send down His Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ.) does not mean you have to buy into the act to enjoy the music.

‘Enjoy’ is probably the wrong word – this is a hard and gritty work, with the soloist pitched against a massive orchestra, often straining to be heard, and eventually – after a typically rhythmic onslaught in the final section – leaving the stage to offer the final bars in a recess (here the Barbican Hall’s architecture as a muted gloss on what has gone before. Brilliant young trumpeter Alison Balsam tackled the heavy demands of the solo part with bravura and an admirable sense of subtlety, sometimes lost against the orchestra. She played the revised version of the concerto, utilising two extra antiphonal trumpets in the final section, where in the original version, written for John Wallace, the solo trumpet part was expected to fulfil the role of all three trumpets!

All well and good – two considered scores, extremely well played and controlled with Sir Andrew Davis’s expected aplomb. Then there was the second half, and Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, written when MacMillan was only five. For forty players – wind, brass and percussion, arrayed in short, serried ranks in front of Sir Andrew – this is so monolithic, so certain of where it comes from, so assured of its purpose and, impeccably performed with its heavy, slow-moving chords at this performance, that there was a problem that it almost obscured the first half of the concert. All credit to MacMillan for programming works by other composers and works dear to him, but on this occasion it almost upset the apple cart.

A timeless landscape and a “timescape” came together in the first half of the final concert of the MacMillan weekend, MacMillan’s own Í (Meditation on Iona) coupled with Birtwistle’s millennium score for the Chicago Symphony, Exody. MacMillan himself took charge of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (their first time working together) and those following his work with the BBC Philharmonic will know that he had conducted the Birtwistle already in Manchester.

It was great to hear Exody again, given my disappointment of Barenboim’s European première at the Proms a few years back. MacMillan understands this work so much better. He lives and breathes it and its insistent ticking up to midnight (ostensibly the last seconds before the new millennium), together with its long sinewy string lines and repetitive wind and percussion detail, was here displayed in an authoritative and secure performance. If any Birtwistle work deserves wider currency it is surely Exody – tauter than Earth Dances, with more incident than The Shadow of Night – and one can only cross one’s fingers that either this performance or MacMillan’s previous BBC Phil finds its way onto CD soon.

While Exody did not unbalance the programme in the way that Messiaen’s Et exspecto had in the lunchtime concert the previous day, there is no doubting that Birtwistle’s soundworld is more individual than MacMillan’s. The rhythmic, almost jazzy, outbursts that are common to many of MacMillan’s scores seem to place his music in the everyday, whereas Birtwistle’s music is “otherworldly” – quite unlike anyone else’s.

Curiously, MacMillan’s tribute to Iona, Í, is the most distinctively different of his scores I heard in these two Weekend concerts. Indeed he seems to recreate in sound the various strata not just of Iona’s geological history but also its human history. For strings and percussion (MacMillan using a “rubber-tipped superball”, as he also does in Epiclesis, which Lynne Walker’s programme-note described as producing “a threatening, rumbling sound”). The “superball” is more effective in Í, echoing subterranean forces or whistling winds, with the spiritual history of the island, and St Columba’s death there in 597 AD not forgotten. But the rather fragile balance of man, spirituality and nature is the overriding scope of the piece, with potentially disruptive percussive effects to the end.

And so the festival ended with probably contemporary classical music’s biggest hit. Veni, Veni, Emmanuel is 13 years old and with hundreds of performances around the world it is surely the most successful of modern works. Colin Currie played it with studious aplomb, more sober perhaps than the works original performer, Evelyn Glennie. Curiously the use of a larger orchestra than the original Scottish Chamber Orchestra seemed to make for muddier textures. In this case the lowering into an upright position of the Barbican’s back two acoustic boards above the platform didn’t seem to help, but that is a small point. The climax, when all the orchestral players strike bells as the soloist retreats to the back of the stage and intones a chime on the tubular bells, is the epitome of what live music is about – it is just as much visual as aural, which no broadcast or CD can ever emulate.

One should mention again that the work’s inspiration is overtly Christian, and – MacMillan’s notes not clarifying whether this was coincidental or not – its composition was started on the first Sunday of Advent 1991 and finished on Easter Sunday 1992 – but, again, the music can speak for itself.

So, another successful January composer weekend is over. For those eager to plan the next couple of years, Paul Hughes, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s General Manager, announced that in 2006 the “Composer Weekend” will be devoted to Elliott Carter and, in 2007, Sofia Gubaidulina. Definitely worth putting in the diary!

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