The Kings Place programme booklet for Since it was the Day of Preparation… folds like a thin papery triptych. Yet, the composer’s photograph does not occupy the central panel. Indeed, gushing verbal bombast, a feature all too common in performances of new music, was pleasantly absent. James MacMillan’s programme notes were a minimal paragraph outlining the tripartite structure of his chamber work, which follows the narrative of Christ’s resurrection. Refreshingly, it was this narrative of mystery, rather than conventional paradigms of musical genius, that occupied the stage of Hall One on Sunday night.

James MacMillan © Philip Gatward
James MacMillan
© Philip Gatward

The Passion narratives dealing with the Crucifixion of Christ have yielded a daunting array of musical settings, the most commonly performed being those of J.S. Bach. It is perhaps strange that the Resurrection of Christ from the tomb, arguably a yet more significant event to the history of Christianity, has not enjoyed similar musical expression. Comparing the two biblical stories in his pre-concert talk, MacMillan described the Resurrection narrative as one that side-steps conventional modes of theatricality. The animated courtroom confrontations between humans and the man Jesus are the fabric of the Passion. With the Resurrection we are offered a chronicle of post-crucifixion encounters between the fraught lives of those remaining, and the miraculous reappearances of Jesus.

MacMillan’s title, Since it was the Day of Preparation…, is the first line of text following the death of Christ in St John’s Gospel. The work therefore functions as a sequel to his St John Passion (2007). Commissioned by the Hebrides Ensemble, Edinburgh International Festival, Soli Deo Gloria and Kings Place, the piece is scored for a small ensemble and choral group, with a solo bass singer delivering the words of Christ. MacMillan enlists a striking combination of instruments – cello, clarinet, horn, harp, theorbo, and hand bells – with the intention of evoking the lost biblical music that decorates the world of his chosen narrative.

That the recreation of a past Christian musical tradition was brought into a secularised venue such as Kings Place may be something of a shock to the system. However, the imaginative performance given by the Hebrides Ensemble, Synergy Vocals (SATB), and Brindley Sherratt (bass) showed church and concert hall to be more intimately connected than we might initially suppose. After a captivating theorbo introduction, the opening passages of the Resurrection, telling of The Pierced Christ and The Burial, were sung from the two sides of the upper stalls above the audience. MacMillan’s solo vocal writing moved between traditional chant formations and a more intricate chromaticism with apparent ease, making for a highly compelling amalgamation of religious tropes into an avant-garde musical idiom.

The three-part unfolding of the narrative is punctuated by what MacMillan refers to as solo “motets” for the five instruments. This description is somewhat paradoxical given that motets are conventionally polyphonic and rely upon the interplay of texts and musical processes. During the pre-concert talk I was equally confused to find him referring to these passages as “Cadenzas”, a term that carries with it the baggage of the virtuoso performer. Clearly MacMillan was searching for the appropriate name for these solo entries – one that might hint at their spiritual investment. The work as a whole does feature interpolated Latin liturgical texts, and perhaps MacMillan’s appeal to the motet form was a way of quietly acknowledging this intermeshing.

In any case, the solo passages for theorbo, clarinet and horn deserve special mention for their inventive showcasing of instrumental sounds. Elizabeth Kenny’s dexterous handling of harmonics and glissandi made the theorbo variously chime and roar in the introduction, while Stephen Stirling mastered a dramatic ascent from mournful horn notes to frenetic trumpeting after “The Appearance on the Shore of Tiberius”. The clarinet solo bridging “The Empty Tomb” and “The Appearance to Mary of Magdalena” was executed with such flair by Yann Ghiro that one might have mistaken his instrument for a strange pyrotechnic device. These solos will be published individually and it will be fascinating to trace their future in the world of solo instrumental performance.

When the ensemble gathered together MacMillan’s polyphonic writing flourished. Hand bells struck by the singers and musicians added a ceremonial aura to the performance, and, in turn, broke with the convention of the performer remaining wholly focused upon their instrument. However, it was also in these passages that MacMillan allowed several rather commonplace melodies to blossom – a characteristic of his music that might grate with listeners (including myself) who had been enjoying his unwieldy chromaticism. MacMillan’s desire to approach musical creativity in a non-cerebral way possibly results in a disinterested attitude towards contemporary music aesthetics. What it achieves in place of this, though, is a richly communicative offering that cherishes religious narratives and fashions an alternative avenue for their import to be revealed.

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