Orpheus Choir’s “Chichester Psalms” concert terrific! – but James MacMillan has the last word……..

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington presents:

JAMES MacMILLAN – Seven Last Words From The Cross
LEONARD BERNSTEIN – Chichester Psalms

MacMillan: Pasquale Orchard (soprano) / Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby (soprano/alto)
Karishma Thanawala (alto) / Giancarlo Lisi, Peter Liley (tenors)
Stephen Clothier, Minto Fung (basses)

Bernstein: Liam Squire (treble) / Pasquale Orchard (soprano)
Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby (alto) / Giancarlo Lisi (tenor)
Joe Haddow (bass)

Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Brent Stewart (Music Director)
Thomas Gaynor (organ)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

Saturday, 29th April 2017

As with music and art in general, people’s responses to matters of spiritual belief seem to vary enormously from individual to individual. Despite what seems like an ever-increasing secularisation of everyday life, we’re still can’t help being either active or passive observers of institutionalised calendar commemorations based on matters of belief in God which affect various human activities – we’re regularly made aware of certain historical frameworks and structures brought forward from times when people in general rendered to a Deity things that were regarded as belonging to that Deity, with few questions asked. A pivotal event in this history is without doubt the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, one which continues to exert significant influence in the Western World along any point of the spectrum of faith, on believers and non-believers alike.

Still, however much belief and spirituality in general takes up people’s lives in the 21st century is well-nigh impossible to gauge, except in the most generalised of terms – it would seem far less than, say, a century ago, and that the unprecedented horrors of the previous century, including the escalation of the human race’s own self-destructive potentialities might suggest a growing crisis of belief in any kind of omnipotent being who might allow or oversee such universal catastrophes, from which advancement of humankind towards any kind of future seems increasingly unlikely.

Creative artists these days seem to me to either mirror or confront these present-day actualities in their work – a case in point regarding confrontation is the Scottish composer James MacMillan, whose compositions actively reflect an active and securely-held Christian faith – at the opposite end of such motivations (to contrast the work of two utterly different “visionaries” I’ve encountered recently) is British playwright Caryl Churchill whose latest work for the stage (Escaped Alone, recently performed at Circa Theatre, Wellington) presents frighteningly dystopian scenarios of the future, one in which God as he/she is presently known seems non-existent. Of course both the dystopian prophetess playwright and the social-justice-driven Catholic composer advocate in different ways strategies for countering certain trends before a point of no return is reached, and so in some respects there’s common ground. Perhaps a basic difference between MacMillan and Churchill is that, for the former, there’s always a sense of optimism for the future amid the struggle – whereas for the latter the proposed scenarios and nihilistic attitudes given voice in her most recent work seem matter-of-factly pessimistic.

As was the case with the great French composer Olivier Messiaen, MacMillan’s creativity is inextricably tied up with his religious beliefs – “For me, religious faith is rooted in the mess of real life” he once said in an interview. And though he may no longer be the Marxist revolutionary of days of yore, his work still has an occasional “firebrand” quality, a confrontational edge which sets him apart from the new-age “Holy Minimalist” school of composition, whose preoccupation is a kind of transcendence set largely above conflict. By contrast, music such as MacMillan’s “Seven Last Words from the Cross” expresses great swathes of anguish and explosions of anger, alongside a sense of grief and sorrow, all of which suggests that its creator is well aware of the pain and suffering of all mankind as articulated by the sacrificed Christ. MacMillan’s text in this work is somewhat more than merely the seven “scripture-gazetted” utterances of Jesus on the cross, but takes also from sources such as the Good Friday Responsaries for Tenebrae which quote from the Book of Lamentations: “All you who pass along this way take heed and consider if there is any sorrow like mine……” – an impassioned call across the ages for human empathy.

This 1993 work for voices and strings (performed here with the instrumental parts transcribed for organ) came across with considerable force within the vast Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul spaces – it was a fairly no-holds-barred setting of the seven finally-reckoned gospel-recorded statements uttered by Christ as he hung on the crucificxion cross in Jerusalem. I’m aware that my comments below are as much descriptive of the music as analytical of the performance – perhaps even more so the former! I hope the reader will forgive such self-indulgence at my delight in coming across such a magnificent piece of relatively “new” music for me, and be reassured that my descriptions inherently recognise the abilities of the musicians involved to “articulate” the music to the point where it was able to make the impressions on me that it did!

There were times when the lush ambiences of the Cathedral told against the music’s clarity, places which I’ve tried to pinpoint as best I’ve been able to. However, as there are usually roundabouts at hand where there are swings, the up-side of the venue was its incredible resonance, which in places “enlarged” the music’s expressive scope to awe-inspiring extents! With a work like MacMillan’s containing both grand and intimate statements, no one venue is going to be ideal, and Wellington Cathedral was certainly no exception. Conductor Brent Stewart certainly brought out the best of the venue’s interaction with the music, and the performers did the rest with their, by turns, sensitive and full-throated music-making.

The organ opened the work with a simple plaintive note, the sounds of deep and inward mourning – as the choir intoned the words “Father forgive them”, the organ became an enormous swinging pendulum over which movement the voices rose and climbed, the cathedral’s spacious acoustic allowing the voices to “float” and soar. As well the cavernous spaces gave the organ’s deepest notes enormous girth, the combination of “space above” and “depth below” making for an amazingly cosmic sound-experience. Much of the plainchant-like agitated exclamations which followed were unintelligible as words from where I sat, at about the halfway mark within the audience – those sounds jumbled in the huge spaces, but the choir’s magnificently-sustained intonings filled the building’s ambience with urgently prayerful impulses and piteous beseeching.

A raw, monumental quality resounded from the voices over the repeated statement “Woman, Behold thy Son”, the utterances underscored with great silences “surging softly backwards” in between each tumultuous command – at first a soft organ pedal measured the depths of the sea of each silence, stirrings and sproutings of energy which grew into sequential melodic patterns, and finally burst forth with bravura-like outpourings of a fantastical nature. Everything was superbly controlled as the voices continued to repeat the phrase, with the organ accompaniments becoming more frenetic and desperate-sounding until a kind of exhaustion-point was reached, the instrumental sounds whimpering and imploring, searching for some kind of resolution or answer – in the throes of these agitations the voices spoke to and for the son, naming the woman as his mother. With fewer words to decipher I found this movement simply overwhelming in its direct, almost confrontational attitude, and in its sense of journeying stepwise towards depictions of a spirit in extremis.

Beginning the third section, the men intoned in Latin a tribute to the wood of the Cross – “Ecce Lignum Crucis” – (Behold the Wood of the Cross..) – accompanied by a singing melody the men sang “Venite Adoramus” – “Come, let us adore him”. Women’s voices at first sounded earthier, almost medieval, as they repeated the “Ecce Lignum” salutation, then rhapsodised more freely with the organ, the voices overlapping and suffusing the acoustic with richly-upholstered tones of adoration.

A great outburst of agitation from the organ ( with the conductor, Brent Stewart, “conducting” the organist!) prepared the way for two women soloists, their voices positively stratospheric, giving voice to Christ’s radiant invitation to the “good thief” to join him in Paradise. Deep organ meditations followed (eight speakers and a sub-woofer, doing the “honours” with a smaller organ, I was told, proudly, before the concert began, by one of the organisers – I can vouch for the effectiveness of the arrangement as the result seemed even more sonorous and wide-ranging as we in the audience had a right to expect!), with the soloist, Thomas Gaynor, skilfully managing the transition from inchoate murmurings to full-blooded transcendent intensities of light and colour, as the men sang, with increasing agitated feeling “Eli, eli lama sabachtani” – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Again, I found it difficult to decipher some of the words in that cavernous acoustic, though such was the intensity of the music’s rise and fall and the musicians’ control, I was content to be borne along on a tide of pure emotion, unsure of exactly where I was going, but confident in the musicians’ ability to keep things afloat and buoyant. Whether slow or swift-moving, such was the fascination exerted by music and performance, that specific words mattered less than the sense of being caught up in somethingsignificant and deeply felt – The “I thirst” section featured men’s voices barely “registering” against a background of women’s voices by turns, whispering, chanting, and singing, in Latin “I gave you to drink of life-giving water….”, before organ and voices suddenly erupted, flooding the vistas with sonorous urgencies, and then withdrawing into the agitated resonances once again.

Jagged organ chords slashed their way across the sound vistas, occasioning a sudden lighting change, as if the world was suddenly drenched in blood – most effective! Over the agitations the women’s voices began a flowing passage based on the Good Friday Responses for Tenebrae, “My eyes were blind with weeping” joined by the rest of the choir, developing a sombre meditation on sorrow.

The instrumental slashings returned, but couldn’t quell the impassioned cry from the voices of “Father”, which the organ supported with a heartfelt meditation, generating some Janacek-like intensities in places before slowly allowing resignation and a kind of tingling tranquility to drift back and settle all around for what seemed like moments outside time. The performers requested before the concert that no applause should follow the performance, and this strange sense of something continuing to resonate stayed with us throughout the interval – a most telling strategy, and one that worked brilliantly!

The Cathedral’s voluminuous spaces brought out the arresting attack of the voices and the wonderfully percussive scintillations at the opening of the second item on the evening’s programme, Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”, even if the resonances played havoc with the music’s more incisive, quick-moving sequences.
A dancing organ solo brought the soloists briefly to the platform, before some gently exotic percussive touches introduced the boy soprano, Liam Squire, singing the words of Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd – I shall not want” – the melodic line characteristically mixed its composer’s penchant for sentimentality with slightly “grainier” sequences, bringing forth moments of rapt beauty from the young man’s voice, along with passages that seemed more effortful, perhaps too low-lying in places for the voice to properly expand and take flight.

Bernstein’s setting of Psalm 2 “Why do the nations” (the words familiar from Handel’s “Messiah” of course), galvanised the ensemble, with rhythmic passages that seemed to come straight from “West Side Story”, along with exciting percussion effects – even in this acoustic the trajectories of the music danced and enlivened the textures to spectacular effect.

A “grunty” organ solo with harmonic sequences and progressions reminding one of Reger’s music introduced the third section “Adonai, Adonai” (Lord, Lord), sung in the manner of a ballad, the melody graceful and warming, wrapping itself around and about one’s sensibilities, especially so in the wordless sections. The soloists tenderly and sensitively extended the mood with variants of the melodic line, until the sound’s “dying fall” imparted a rapt and devotional sense of valediction to the proceedings, the composer striving to impart the text’s sentiment of “brethren…together in unity” at the work’s very end.

Coming after James MacMillan’s direct and uncompromising exploration of grief and pain in “Seven Last Words From The Cross”, Bernstein’s far less demanding work might have been regarded by some people as a kind of emotional refurbishing in the wake of a series of debilitating meditations, and, in contrast, by others as something of an anticlimax. I inclined more to the latter than to the former view, thinking I would have preferred to leave the concert with those heartfelt gestures of compassion and empathy resounding in my head and playing on my sensibilities. Still, each of the pieces spoke its own particular truths and left the other more-or-less intact – and the performances by solo singers, instrumentalists and the choir, under Brent Stewart’s inspired leadership, along with organist Thomas Gaynor’s brilliant playing, certainly delivered the goods, enabling each work to make its own particular impact in grand style.

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