Lawrence Cherney’s Soundstreams is cementing its reputation for presenting some of the finest music in the city this season. Earlier this year, they gave us the superb soprano Adrianne Pieczonka in George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children. In a month or so, they’ll be presenting the famed Steve Reich in his 80th-birthday concert.
On Tuesday, it was Scottish composer James MacMillan in the Soundstreams spotlight, conducting his own music, along with the work of two Canadian composers, in a choral concert. As both conductor and composer, MacMillan presented a stunning evening of intense, powerful music that left his audience silent, breathless, transfixed.
The highlight of the program was MacMillan’s 1995 masterpiece, Seven Last Words from the Cross, surely one of the great works of the 20th century. In a work spanning close to an hour, MacMillan has set for chorus and orchestra the seven last utterances that the various Gospels record from Christ’s lips – from the simple “I thirst” to the heartbreaking “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani” (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me), from the finality of “It is finished” to the emotion of “Woman, behold thy son!” MacMillan, in a language completely his own but which freely uses both the tonality of generations past and the dissonance of our own, records the seven moods of his texts with unerring precision, courageous adventurousness and great drama. MacMillan is a believing Christian, but his Seven Last Words is not the least bit liturgical, or theological. It is a portrait of Christ as a man in crisis, in pain, achingly human as he leaves this Earth. As we listen to the soprano’s cries of “Father, forgive them…” or the rock-like basses intoning “Eli, Eli…” or the almost impossibly quiet strings expiring with Christ’s last breaths at the work’s close, we are drawn down into a tunnel of Jesus’s suffering, claustrophobically enclosed in the world of his torment. Yet it is a tribute to MacMillan’s skill that all this pain is rendered as beauty, with an artfulness that is full of proportion and balance, as well as drama and high emotion. A masterpiece, pure and simple.
And to hear MacMillan himself conduct this work was a second thrill. Leading a string orchestra and “Choir 21,” a special vocal ensemble Soundstreams assembles for contemporary works, MacMillan was able to wrest every last nuance from his work. Both orchestra and chorus seemed as mesmerized by the music they were playing as we in the audience were in listening to it. Contrasts were deep, sonorities beautiful, artistic commitment at a high level.
The first half of Tuesday’s concert featured a smaller work by MacMillan, his Gallant Weaver; an ethereal piece by Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt, Immortal Bach; and two Canadian a cappella choral compositions, Three Hymns by Murray Schafer and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d by James Rolfe. In any other concert, both the Rolfe and the Schafer would have been the stunning highlights. The Three Hymns (from Schafer’s The Fall into Light) showed Schafer at his choral best, using original sonorities in his choir to press us toward ever more mystical states of being. And Rolfe’s Whitman setting was at turns elegiac and dramatic, a powerful setting of a powerful text. MacMillan conducted the entire first half with sensitivity to his material, and if it took his choir a little time to warm up, and relax into the music, once they were there they performed with fine musicality.
It’s almost too obvious to note in 2016, but bears repeating nonetheless, that the old distinctions of “new” music or “contemporary” music or “avant-garde” music that were the necessary definitions of years past make almost no sense today. A composer like James MacMillan shows us how lucky present-day creators are – they have an expanded palette of musical colours at their disposal to paint their musical canvases. What is striking about their work is not the techniques they use to create their pieces, but the power they achieve with them. It’s like seeing pictures in colour rather than in black and white, or in high-def – modern art can carry so much more emotional weight. It does what music is built to do with greater ease – move us into new and different states of consciousness.
By Robert Harris