Brexit Lends New Requiem Ex Post Facto Prescience

Matthew Halls conducting the premiere of Sir James MacMillan's A European Requiem at the Oregon Bach Festival. (Photo by Athena Delene)
Matthew Halls conducting the premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s ‘A European Requiem’ at the Oregon Bach Festival. (Photo by Athena Delene)
By James Bash

EUGENE, Ore. — Over the past decade, the 47-year-old Oregon Bach Festival’s adherence to the classical repertoire has loosened considerably to include a variety of other musical genres. This summer’s performances (June 23-July 10) featured Astor Piazzolla’s tango music, the new music of Gabriel Kahane, the folksy Punch Brothers, and a world premiere of a requiem by Scottish composer James MacMillan.

Sir James MacMillan at the festival. (Josh Gren)
Composer James MacMillan at the festival. (Josh Gren)

Although MacMillan finished A European Requiem long before the Brexit vote, one could not help but associate it with the current state of affairs in the United Kingdom. In a preview discussion, the composer made it clear that his Requiem was meant to be taken in a much broader context – for the soul of a culturally cohesive Europe. The world premiere performance, on July 2 at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of the University of Oregon, was dedicated to former OBF General Director John Evans, who had commissioned the requiem for the festival. Evans passed away from an apparent heart attack earlier in the year at the age of 62.

MacMillan used standard Latin requiem texts but didn’t separate them into sections in the manner of Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, or Fauré. Instead, he made his requiem a through-composed work with no pauses. Overall, MacMillan contrasted sounds of discord and disruption with those of harmony and calm – with the latter winning out in the very end.

The beginning segment (“Requiem aeternam”) was not introspective but started with a rackety loud bang and clashing chords from the orchestra. Amidst the quiet that followed, the basses of the festival’s Berwick Chorus, an ensemble of 40 professionals, juxtaposed a low drone against an ethereal high tone from the sopranos. Passages with sweeping glissandi gave the choir and orchestra a way to maneuver into more harmonically soothing sections, which were interrupted by noisy strife from the orchestra.

Artistic director Matthew Halls. (Josh Gren)
Artistic director Matthew Halls. (Josh Gren)

Other attempts to move into a more harmonically calm space, such as after countertenor Christopher Ainslie’s  comforting “Kyrie eleison,” were thwarted by angry outbursts from the percussion battery or grumblings and rumblings from the basses and low brass. Also memorable: A “De profundis” that reached into the basement floorboards of the male voices, baritone Morgan Smith’s declamatory lines, and the sopranos and altos achieving a boy choir-like sound during the “Sanctus Dominus.”

Remarkable as well were the shouted “Hosannas” and a “Libera me” section that traveled from a pillowy pianissimo to a fearful forte. The struggle between light and dark finally subsided at the end of “In paradisum” as the heartbeat of sound seemed to fade away into the heavens.

Cheers and bravos greeted conductor and artistic director Matthew Halls and his forces after the piece concluded, but the acclamation became thunderous when MacMillan appeared on stage. Halls and the choir then topped off the evening with an outstanding performance of MacMillan’s “Alleluia,” an a cappella number that transitioned from serene to intensely energetic and back to serene with a multitude of key changes in the space of ten minutes.

The “Alleluia” was an especially fitting encore because it was commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival and premiered in 2013 by the Berwick Chorus when the artistic leadership was passed to Halls from conductor Helmuth Rilling, co-founder of the festival with local music guru Royce Saltzman.

From the start, the Oregon Bach Festival has remained grounded on the music of J.S. Bach, celebrating its organ, choral, and orchestral glory. This year’s programming included Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (Parts 4-6), an organ recital by Paul Jacobs, concerts that featured violinists Monica Huggett and Rachel Podger, and an event with the Berwick Chorus. Other concerts featured OBF’s Berwick Academy of young musicians armed with period instruments under the direction of Robert Levin and Podger, and the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy with Anton Armstrong on the podium.

Organist Paul Jacobs in recital. (Josh Gren)
Organist Paul Jacobs in recital. (Josh Gren)

Halls’ precise style of conducting worked very well for Bach’s “Magnificat,” in which he led the festival orchestra, soloists, and the Berwick Chorus in the first half of the concert. He elicited a propulsive performance that moved along too efficiently between some movements when a little lingering would have let the sound sink in. Stellar playing by the orchestra (using modern instruments) and angelic singing by the principals and choir reflected a high level of polish.

The soloists were sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Sherezade Panthaki, countertenor Ainslie, tenor Nicholas Phan, and baritone Jason Steigerwalt. All sang immaculately and expressively. Phan’s warm tenor voice didn’t match up perfectly with Ainslie’s narrower tone for the duet in the “Et misericordia,” but each singer shone brightly in the solos. It should be noted that Ainslie’s magnificent “Esurientes implevit bonis” was augmented by splendid accompaniment from flutists Martha Long and Zachariah Galatis.

The choir expressed the text with crisp diction, impressively rolling their r’s and locking in vowels with incredible unity. The joy of the opening statement (“Magnificat”) and the lively tempos of the “Omnes generationes” and “Sicut locutus est” were riveting. Perhaps because of the choristers’ placement on a semi-circle of risers behind the orchestra, they were unable to raise the volume into double fortissimo level for the final “Gloria patri,” but their sound was still glorious.

Robert Levin with the Berwick Academy. (Josh Gren)
Robert Levin with the Berwick Academy. (Josh Gren)

Levin and the Berwick Academy’s performance of works by Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn at Beall Hall (July 1) was a mixed success. On the plus side of the ledger, Levin displayed his amazing wizardry at a pianoforte while conducting Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, dashing off extemporaneous riffs as Mozart would have done. The most exciting cadenzas were the ones in which Levin generated a torrent of notes like a powerful waterfall.

But as a conductor, Levin was limited to an odd assortment of gestures. For Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus and Haydn’s Symphony No. 103, he never gave a real beat, but punched the air with his fists to cue a section or an individual. His herky-jerky jabs caused the woodwinds to muff an exposed entry in the second movement of the Haydn. Fortunately, enough of the musicians kept a keen eye on concertmaster Podger to create a lithe and brilliant sound.