Requiem, wrestling with the angels

The premiere of Sir James MacMillan's "A European Requiem" at the Oregon Bach Festival rages against the dying of the light

EUGENE – A perilous slide overcomes the Kyrie eleison, a keening, piercing swoop of sound, a lament rising above the orchestra like an unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question. Lord have mercy, the words mean, and in countertenor Christopher Ainslie’s delivery they are not so much an invocation as a genuine plea.

Anyone expecting a smooth and soothing slip into the oblivion of the afterlife from Sir James MacMillan’s ambitious new requiem, which had its world premiere on Saturday night at the Oregon Bach Festival here, was in for a shock. A European Requiem is less a work of solace, though it has some tender passages of relief, than a deep and fiercely felt argument about the unknowable – a lamentation not for an individual soul but for the soul of a continent, for the idea of a broad and culturally cohesive Europe, which MacMillan sees as slipping away. Great ideas, when they die, die hard: one does not lose, the music seems to say, without a struggle, and in the struggle lie the sense and passion of the thing being lost.

Conductor Matthew Halls and soprano soloist Sherezade Panthaki. Photo: Athene Delene

Conductor Matthew Halls and soprano soloist Sherezade Panthaki. Photo: Athena Delene

You don’t need to agree with MacMillan that an ancient idea of what Europe means is passing, or even understand the specifics of what is a rigorous historical and philosophical argument, to feel the urgency and texture of the debate in the music. A European Requiem pulls out all the stops, taking full advantage of the sonic possibilities of solo vocal lines; the festival’s very large and potent Berwick Chorus, whose members stood on rafters seemingly halfway to the sky; and the estimable festival orchestra, which undertook a rigorous forty-minute workout, especially in the percussion section. Conductor Matthew Halls, who is also the Bach Festival’s artistic director, led a splendidly well-articulated performance, pinpointing its textural shifts and vital balancing of tension and ease.

MacMillan uses great splats of percussion to emphasize the fractures in the music, and in the Requiem the drum insurrections are both startling and well-integrated into the single-movement structure of the piece as a whole. It seems a maturing from the exhilarating pounding in MacMillan’s 1991 Sinfonietta, which the composer conducted in a program at the Bach Fest last week. I liked that piece, which resounded gloriously in the Hult Center’s intimate Soreng Theater, but sometimes wondered whether the extreme oppositions of loud and soft were more for show than integrated effect, a little like those old sonic-range demo albums from the early days of stereo. In the Requiem the drumbeats are fierce but expertly placed, messengers of a shattering that’s essential to the overall mood, which MacMillan identifies as rising from the traditional Latin text: the music “is not a memorial for a loved one,” he writes, “but rather a general response to this vivid text, coloured by a realism and wistfulness at the passing of deep cultural resonances.”

Berwick Choras and Festival Orchestra at full throttle. Photo: Athena Delene

Berwick Chorus and Festival Orchestra at full throttle. Photo: Athena Delene

Orchestra, choir, and soloists (sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Sherezade Panthaki, countertenor Ainslie, tenor Nicholas Phan, baritone Morgan Smith) sounded superb in the Hult Center’s large Silva Concert Hall, which must have been happy to have an unamplified performance easily fill its space without sounding diminished.

In the end A European Requiem is a mature, reflective, deeply moving work by a constantly engaging contemporary composer, and the Bach Festival, which commissioned the piece, is a fitting place for it to have premiered. As large and encompassing as the Requiem is, it also feels like a very human response to a godlike question – a resolute grappling, like Jacob wrestling with the angel. At the end, listeners understand they’ve undertaken a journey, and it’s been a profound one. Its resolution, like Dylan Thomas’s famous response to the same large question, comes from its unwavering compulsion to challenge and resist: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” If the light goes out, MacMillan will still burn.

Saturday night’s concert opened with a smart and heartfelt performance of Bach’s Magnificat in which the large chorus, in particular, shone. But the Silva was a little less kind to the sonically more intimate Bach, muting its sound if not entirely swallowing it. The evening ended with an unannounced performance of an a cappella piece for the festival’s superb chorus, MacMillan’s Alleluia, which had its premiere at the Eugene fest in 2013. The Requiem, for all its grandeur, arrives at solace and resolution only tentatively. Here, in the Alluluia’s beautiful repeating harmonies on a single word that becomes almost untethered from any sense of language other than a musical one, they are freely given, like angels on the rise.

Requiem composer Sir James MacMillan at a pre-concert talk. Photo: Athena Delene

Requiem composer Sir James MacMillan at a pre-concert talk. Photo: Athena Delene

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Another major Requiem, the Brahms, will conclude this year’s Oregon Bach Festival on Sunday, July 10, in a program with his Symphony No. 3 in F Major. The complete 2016 Oregon Bach Festival schedule is here.

 

 

 

 

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