There is a scene in the movie “Amadeus” in which Mozart is conducting his opera Don Giovanni. Upon the conclusion of the masterpiece, Mozart, clearly fatigued, looks back and is greeted with mild applause from a sparse audience. I can only imagine that Sir Colin Davis and composer James MacMillan endured a similar — but not quite identical — reaction when looking over the crowd after the second performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in the American premiere of MacMillan’s St John’s Passion. At the beginning of the night, the crowd was by no means large; in fact it was one of the smallest crowds I had ever seen at Symphony Hall. By my falling chairs metric (see this post), it was perhaps the smallest, since before Davis’ baton was ever raised, three chairs disrupted the quiet. My entire section was about half vacated.
What was strange to me, however, was post-intermission. Looking up into the second balcony, there were two completely empty sections that I do not think were empty before. This suggested that there were large sections of people who had left at intermission during a single piece that spanned both halves of the evening, which means that large numbers of people may not have been terribly pleased with the piece. Those of us who remained, certainly the majority, were happy to give a proper ovation to MacMillan when he appeared on stage.
The idea that something was so appalling to force the exodus of so many is curious and reminded me of a comment I heard recently about how repulsive she found a recent performance of Handel’s Messiah due to the “grotesque” display of religiousness in the piece. It’s a particularly bizarre comment considering that the Messiah was clearly written as a religious piece. Without the Messiah, simply as thematic comment and not even with religious commentary, there is no composition. While it could be argued that one can enjoy the music from a secular perspective, the theme of the piece should be respected. By “respect,” I can illustrate what I mean by example: if I find out that a composer wrote music with a specific intention, such as the dedication of Brahms’ Double Concerto as somewhat of a peace offering to Johannes Brahms’ estranged friend Joseph Joachim, I fully respect the intended meaning of the piece, even though it’s not very difficult to hear a lover’s relationship (which was not intended). Nevertheless it is not a love song in the sense that I first heard it, and I have come to appreciate it for its redemptive power between two close friends. In a similar manner, hearing religious music from secular composers is not perfectly ideal to me, as I would much prefer to hear religious music from persons who truly believed that they were honoring their religious beliefs.
I extend this to hearing the Messiah for that particular critic: if one wishes to decouple the music from the purpose of the music, then what, really, is the point? Music for music’s sake is sterile and emotionless, but what we love so much about the music is the emotional content that it elicits. For me, there is no greater musical joy than to experience music with others, live, in a way that makes you feel like you are interacting with the musicians, the composer, and the audience. It’s a visceral experience, and I would argue that the connection between other music lovers is important. If something in this experience is lost, such as when one cannot appreciate or respect the intention of the composer, or when one denigrates the performance of an artist, then it is less meaningful of an experience.
I cannot help but wonder if tonight’s attendance disparities were explained by an inability for this audience to be drawn to new religious music and then to appreciate or just respect it.
The music itself was bold. The string sections of the orchestra played a limited role, while brass instruments matched the soaring voices, which rang inside the hall. Percussion was employed to create a sense of drama. I am not at all familiar with MacMillan, who was on hand tonight, but I felt that he sufficiently used music to convey the intensity of the passion of Christ. It was moving. He refrained from lyrical repetitiveness which was appreciated in certain situations, where one does not come to any greater understanding by the tenth turn of a phrase. But the limited uses he made of repeated phrases were surprisingly appropriate and natural: this was also reinforced by the natural repetition of a musical passage, when one just senses that the next bars should reiterate the preceding ones.
The text MacMillan chose was in English, and the passages were from the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, which presents a translation that has a unique clarity of prose among extant English translations. One could argue that it is among the more accurate of the modern English translations, but that is subject to a great debate outside the scope of this discussion. There is something to be said about this decision, especially since the more flowery King James Version could well have been an option for an English text. But in this decision restraint was shown, I think, that portrays MacMillan as a composer in the tradition of Einstein: make it as simple as possible but not simpler. To borrow from Johann Von Strack’s character in Amadeus, it’s time we had a Passion in our own language: plain English for plain people. While I am sure other Passions exist in English but am unfamiliar with them, I am glad to see a contemporary composer who is willing to use this language to convey the story to a new generation of English speaking persons. MacMillan is not, however, completely immune to the allure of using another language for effect, as he employs a limited amount of Latin at the end of each part of the piece. It’s unclear to me what the reasons are behind this, but I did not find it distracting, as long as the translations were available in the program.
The choruses were arranged in two parts primarily, with full ranges of voices in each. The narrative chorus was smaller and stage right, and the large chorus occupied the rear of the stage and served as the voice of all characters except for Christ, who was sung by baritone Christopher Maltman. I cannot reiterate enough how inspiring it is to hear the human voice radiate inside of Symphony Hall; it never ceases to amaze me. Uniquely captivating was Maltman’s solo voice and the dynamics he could elicit effectively. In his final line, Maltman conveyed with immense appropriateness the solemnity of the man whose fate was known and accepted, reciting, “It is finished.” He was perfect in the delivery of this line, which musically led into the chorus’ finish and the orchestral coda that enabled something of a quiet reflection of the personae dramatis.
In recent weeks I had actually been attempting to break into the wide world of Western Art music’s rich Christian tradition. It is a daunting landscape of composers and works, and I came merely to the conclusion that the starting point had to be JS Bach. While I have not yet figured out where in his exhaustive catalogue to begin, I was fortunate to have MacMillan show up on the BSO program to get immediately a sense of the modern composer’s take on this 2,000 year old story. It is admittedly rare that I encounter a modern composition that I find moving or even relatable, but I’ve found both in MacMillan’s composition.