Requiem from a heavyweight

Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan is about to unveil a new requiem at the Oregon Bach Festival. It's a work of mourning for the culture of Europe.

EUGENE – Sir James MacMillan sits amid the organized clutter of his office in the catacombs of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. For the recently knighted Scottish composer and conductor it’s a temporary headquarters, with a couple of chairs, a small black leather couch, and a little table covered with papers, among them the blue-bound score to his new work A European Requiem, which will have its premiere on Saturday night at the Oregon Bach Festival.

It’s early Tuesday afternoon of this week, and MacMillan is on a brief break between a rehearsal and yet another of the many meetings that go along with his busy life. On this evening he’ll conduct the festival’s chamber orchestra in a concert that includes two of his own works, then prepare for a Thursday afternoon lecture and Saturday’s Requiem premiere, one of the focal points of this year’s Bach Fest, which continues at various concert halls in Eugene through July 10. Another new work, a Stabat Mater, will be premiered in London in mid-October, and among other things he’s also in the midst of preparing for the third annual run of his own small musical festival, the Cumnock Tryst, in Ayrshire, where he grew up, about 40 miles south of Glasgow. “It’s a little thing,” he says affectionately. “Four days in the autumn. I’m getting excited.”

Sir James MacMillan conducting. Photo courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

Sir James MacMillan conducting. Photo courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

In person MacMillan, who is 56 and was knighted last year (“Totally delighted,” he told the press at the time), is friendly, open, and eloquent, speaking softly and thoughtfully, with the steady backbeat and slight staccato sting of his native Scots tongue. He speaks as much about culture and its meanings as he does about music, and by implication at least, about the inevitable connection between the two. A close observer of history and “human nature as it passes,” he thinks deeply on the fractures and dislocations of modernity, the intentional divorcement from the past, including the relentless secularization of contemporary life. In this he feels embattled but not alone: “In our own time it’s quite clear that an awful lot of composers have been in search of something sacred.”

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“SOMETHING SACRED” is clearly a vital aspect of his life and work, a conviction woven into the texture of his music and splashing over into his public life. It’s no accident that the work he’s premiering in Eugene is a Requiem, which he wrote for concert performance rather than liturgical purposes despite his fierce advocacy for traditional Catholicism – in a sense, taking the church into the world.

“No layman in Britain is more outspoken in defence of the doctrine and sacred traditions of the Church in these islands,” the Catholic Herald, in a story headlined “The holy warrior with a baton,” wrote in December upon naming him its Catholic of the Year 2015. “Indeed, he has thrown himself into developing that tradition, by devising and supporting projects designed to revitalise the musical liturgy in ordinary parish churches.

“MacMillan is waging a holy war on 1970s-style Mass settings that he describes as ‘musically illiterate, almost as if they were written by semi-trained teenagers. The style is stodgy and sentimental, tonally and rhythmically stunted and melodically inane.’

“As that quote suggests, MacMillan does not mince his words. He is equally forthright when condemning well-connected figures in the Scottish Church who, in his opinion, have allowed Catholic culture to become tainted by the secular nationalism of the (Scottish National Party).”

Macmillan’s Requiem, which the Bach Festival commissioned, is debuting in Eugene in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Considering his own feelings about the shattering of cultural traditions the timing isn’t lost on him, though he insists there is no immediate connection. “It’s a very strange coincidence,” he says with a rueful smile. A European Requiem is not a political work, he stresses – it’s at heart a musical setting of a well-known text. And yet, “There’s no use hiding the fact that the piece has a pre-musical or even extra-musical genesis.”

MacMillan considers himself Scottish, and British, and European, and also, in a sense, a man without borders: “Musicians are like that, because it’s a lingua franca, an international language. We were probably the first internationalists.”

Yet Great Britain, which once ruled an empire, has voted for at least a partial withdrawal from the idea of internationalism, a retreat behind its own borders, and the implications of that reverberate with his own fears about culture cutting itself off from its own history. At one time Europe was unified, he declares: it had a unified Roman culture, based on the ideas of the Greeks, but also on the rock of Saints Peter and Paul.

Catastrophic events have shaken the world’s confidence in long-held traditions and hastened the call for revolutions of one sort or another: the EU itself was born from a desire to overcome the sectarian strife that sent Europe into two devastating 20th century wars. “You can understand that after 1945, people really thought they needed to start again from scratch,” MacMillan says. Yet a world that rejects its own past, he believes, cuts itself off at the roots: “People say the past is a tainted world. But as time has gone on the world has begun to understand that starting everything fresh brings problems, too.”

A requiem by nature and origin is a work of mourning, often a consolation, an honoring of the dead. “There’s a mood. There are moods in the piece,” MacMillan says of his new work. Composers have approached the task of creating requiems in a multitude of ways over the centuries. It is traditionally music written for the Catholic Mass of the Dead, set to Latin text, but has had many variations, from classic versions by Mozart, Brahms, Fauré and others, to the war requiems of Britten and Penderecki, and more secular versions by Delius, Hindemith and others. In its purest, or maybe its broadest, sense it’s a work about loss and remembrance.

MacMillan’s requiem is not for a person but for an entire continent, or rather for the idea we’ve come to think of as the European idea. MacMillan believes that essence is endangered in the contemporary world, and the resulting sense of loss inevitably imbues his music –“a sense of change, and a sense of the beckoning unknown,” as he put it in a recent recorded conversation made available by the Bach Fest. “Culture evaporating. I would say regret. There is a melancholy.”

MacMillan’s staunch religious beliefs and his concern for maintaining tradition might open him to charges of artistic conservatism, and yet his music is a fresh blend of familiar and new, the old informing a contemporary vision. “It is not a reactionary thing, not a conservative thing” to make connections with tradition, he says in that same recorded interview. Music, he adds, has “got to be a living culture, too.”

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YOU CAN HEAR THE EVIDENCE in Tuesday evening’s concert in the Hult Center’s intimate Soreng Theater, a not quite 500-seat hall big enough to encompass an orchestra of about 35 people but small and well-designed enough to offer fine clarity and resonance of sound. On the podium MacMillan seems bigger than he does offstage, as many performers do. Broad-framed, almost bulky, he stands straight-backed, even slightly tilted backward at the shoulders, like a Russian ballet dancer, and his feet are planted well apart to allow him to twist his torso easily in a 180-degree arc. His body glides and flows with understated showmanship as he conducts, and his hands and fingers often perform elegant little dances, pantomimes to reflect pauses or silences or extensions – “almost like a choral conductor,” my concert companion Joshua notes. That easy flow of hand and body becomes a powerful rhythmic jackhammer when the music warrants, rising and falling with percussive force. His reactions to the music and the players are at once intimate and expansive, an expressive urging toward the goal, and yet he also retains an almost ritualistic formalism, a sense of proper reserve.

Tuesday night’s performance, a journey through two of his works and three others that he holds particularly close, allows him broad range. He begins with a brisk and lively ride across the fields of Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture – “perhaps the only bright moment of the evening,” as violist Charles Noble, one of several Oregon Symphony musicians performing in the Bach Fest orchestra, writes in his perceptive and enthusiastic insider comments about the performance in his column Noble Viola. Following is MacMillan’s own short piece For Sonny, leading to Shostakovich’s deeply moving, almost weeping Chamber Symphony in C Minor, Op. 110A, transcribed by Rudolf Barshai from the String Quartet No. 8 – an exhilarating and psychologically draining work that almost screams for an intermission afterwards, which it gets. A brilliant reading follows of Benjamin Britten’s suite on English folk songs, A Time There Was …, which despite some upbeat passages has, in Noble’s words, “a sense of melancholy and the weight of worries of life”; and the evening concludes with MacMillan’s twenty-minute 1991 Sinfonietta, a piece that moves from whispers and silence to blow-the-house down. You might almost call it Sinfonietta for Nodding Patrons; it seems to jolt at least a couple of audience members out of wandering reveries.

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MACMILLAN’S CONCERN FOR THE FRACTURED state of contemporary culture is evident in both of his own pieces, though not in so many words. It’s a matter of texture and response. Visual artists and visual satirists – Sue Coe, Kathe Kollwitz, Daumier, Rolandson – can make overt statements; poets and novelists do it all the time. Even popular music, with its wedding of sound and lyrics, can create potent political art: Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. Composers for the most part work in a different realm, searching beneath events and attitudes for deeper emotions and themes – the undercurrents, not the whitecaps.

The short For Sonny, written in memory of a child who died, is not minimalist, but it has minimalistic tendencies. It’s a piece filled with silences, and is built on two competing yet complementary platforms: insistent pizzicato repetitions answered by tone clusters. The effect is simple and can seem light and amusing and yet also ineffably sad. It rises and falls like something sweet and broken: something unfinished, a little bit left hanging, a little bit not quite said. Sinfonietta is a larger, more sweeping, very ambitious piece, combining almost pastoral passages with sharp bursts of rafter-rattling cacophony that sound like … well, like a culture itself cracking apart. It seems an echo or an answer to the magnificent and heartbreaking Shostakovich, which Elizabeth Schwartz describes in her program notes as rising from his trip to Dresden to compose a film score: “As he viewed the ruined city, leveled by the Allies’ devastating firebombs, Shostakovich contemplated both the physical destruction around him and his own internal disintegration. In this frame of mind, he found himself unable to write a score; instead, over the next three days, he poured his anguish into a powerful string quartet, his eighth.”

Memory persists.

Tradition, MacMillan declares, is like “a river that runs through history, fertilizing the mind and the soul.” Dam the river – through revolution or war or some other extreme cultural shift – and the water can’t get through. “That’s why I’m a traditionalist. I like things to move forward.” On Saturday night, his Requiem will join the forward flow.

 

 

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