I can see what the writer was getting at. Indeed, I would even agree with him – if it were possible to disconnect his metaphor from its dismissive and condescending implications. (I think Verkälrte Nacht is a masterpiece.)
The program – works by Knut Nystedt, James MacMillan, James Rolfe and R. Murray Schafer – demonstrated that smeared harmonies and textures have become a “thing” these days, a device cultivated by many composers, in many different ways. And it also demonstrated that this trend can be a good thing (as Martha Stewart would say).
Immortal Bach, by the late Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt, opened the program. Scored for choir and strings, the short piece is a paraphrase of J.S. Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod. The piece starts out as a literal quotation of the chorale, but soon morphs into a pan-diatonic wash of sound. And placing Choir 21 up in the balcony (for this piece only) contributed to a disembodied, “tone-cluster-of-the-spheres” atmosphere. It was nice.
James MacMillan’s first composition on the concert was The Gallant Weaver. The piece, for unaccompanied choir, is a setting of a poem by Robert Burns. Here he made use of artfully blurred harmonies to create a tranquil, folksy setting – in which the phrase “I love my gallant weaver” emerged repeatedly. Again, it was nice – although some of the highest notes were audibly challenging to the sopranos.
At the outset of the concert, Soundstreams artistic director Lawrence Cherney noted that he likes to place James MacMillian and the Canadian composer James Rolfe side-by-side on his programs. Happily, Cherney’s penchant for doing this rests on firmer ground than the mere fact that they’re both named “James”: there are stylistic affinities in their manipulations of the conventions of tonality.
Rolfe’s programmed work was an a-cappella setting of Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloomed (or, at least, sections of the poem). The setting began its life as piano piece – and it was later reconfigured by the composer for choir. An extended work, it is overtly “chunky” in its form, and the style of the piece runs the gamut from aggressive near-shouting to lush warmth.
Schafer’s Three Hymns (excepted from his oratorio Fall Into Light) had more clusters, all very cleverly deployed. Also, Schafer has a knack for pulling a sudden, striking, major triad out of a tonally amorphous sound-mass like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat.
The big piece for the evening was MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, for choir and strings. MacMillan aptly described it as “seven adagios.”
The composition is suitably solemn (given its subject), with a strong dramatic thrust, and a weighty historicism that reaches back to Bach chorales, and even further back to Gregorian chant. MacMillan marries these traits to 20th-century techniques – snap pizzicato and glissandos and, at one point, a gnarly ostinato right out of The Rite of Spring – to create a vivid palette of instrumental colour. In its tonal language, some passages of Seven Last Words are reminiscent of Barber’s Adagio; others are more like Bernard Herrmann’s music for the movie Psycho.
For this piece, it is unlikely that a better conductor could be found than MacMillan himself, who capably brought out the expressive qualities of his own score. Under his baton, both the chorus and orchestra gave their all, for an awe-inspiring performance.
Toronto audiences are fortunate that Soundstreams has cultivated an ongoing relationship with MacMillan. I look forward to his next visit to our fair city.
© Colin Eatock 2016