By David Wright | April 9, 2017
The account of Christ’s suffering and death in the Gospel According to St. Luke may not be as rich in incident as the other three gospels, but the Scottish composer James MacMillan saw in it an object for meditation on themes of forgiveness and redemption.
Somewhat austere in its approach yet fast-paced and arresting, MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion received its New York premiere Saturday night at St. Bartholomew’s Church, in an energetic performance by the New York Choral Society and Orchestra, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and organist Jason Roberts under the direction of David Hayes.
Luke’s concise account, and MacMillan’s musical meditation on it, occupied barely an hour, perhaps a record for brevity in Passion settings.
In this unconventional Passion with no soloists, the narrative role of the Evangelist was assigned to the adult chorus, which sang large quantities of Biblical text at a brisk clip, usually pronouncing the syllables together — the better for listeners to hear the words.
Children’s choruses are commonly used sparingly as a “special effect” in large choral works. In this piece, MacMillan gave the kids nothing less than every word spoken by Christ in St. Luke’s account.
Perhaps this choice was intended, as Michel Khalifa’s program notes suggested, to give the piece “an extra dimension of humanity.” For one listener, at least, the effect was just the opposite, a distancing from the reality of Christ’s words having been uttered by an adult man.
That would fit with the aesthetic of the piece as a whole, which avoided the operatic realism and text-painting of most Passion settings in favor of a more straightforward telling. A line such as “the curtain of the temple was torn in two,” typically an occasion for a vocal flourish or orchestral outburst, was here simply stated as a fact before the vocalists moved on with the story.
All Passion settings involve some drama and some stepping back to contemplate its meaning, and in this work MacMillan put the emphasis squarely on the latter. If the music sometimes grew violent, it seemed to be evoking not the physical violence of swords cutting off ears but the spiritual distress such events cause in the onlooker. Orchestral interludes served a meditative purpose similar to that of the poetic arias in Bach’s Passions.
To provide still more context for Luke’s narrative, MacMillan framed it with a Prelude and a Postlude, reflecting respectively on the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary of Christ’s impending birth and on the Apostles’ vision of Christ’s resurrection.
In other settings, these passages have occasioned a lot of rejoicing in D major, but MacMillan treated them as soul-disturbing events, from the chorus’s stark shouts of “Maria!” that opened the work to the disintegrating diminuendo that closed it.
Yet even MacMillan was able to summon his inner Cecil B. DeMille now and then, as when Pilate and the Roman imperium marched in to booming timpani straight out of a Biblical epic. Once in a while, a composer’s gotta do what a composer’s gotta do.
Whether the drama was implied or overt, the adult choir took on its storytelling task with vigor and commitment. In the more polyphonic passages, as when the Apostles were disputing amongst themselves or the raging crowd was calling for Christ’s crucifixion, the chorus effectively represented the turbulent scene.
The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, prepared by its artistic director Dianne Berkun Menaker, proved equal to its prominent role and then some. By the choice of a children’s choir, MacMillan evidently intended to give Christ’s words an otherworldly sheen, and this chorus delivered with pure unisons, finely tuned polyphony and secure high entrances, and gave its elders some lessons in diction as well.
Organist Jason Roberts was effective in his various roles, occasionally coming front and center with robust forte chords but more often weaving an atmosphere around singers and orchestra, as when he put a barely perceptible yet ominous deep bass note under the scene of the Last Supper.
The small orchestra proved capable of striking effects, as in the Prelude’s mysterious, improvised passage for high strings, or the apocalyptic blare of trumpets at the close of the crucifixion scene.
On the podium David Hayes, music director of the Choral Society, marshaled his forces with assurance, seeing to it that MacMillan’s message, and his unusual way of delivering it, was clear for all to hear.