A European Requiem

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.

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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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