Friday, November 6, 2009

New wine in old skins...

"No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved." (Matthew 9:16-17).

Don't worry, this is not a sermon. The title of this musing, lifted from Matthew, is also the subheading of the 2nd half of the Virginia Chorale's upcoming Holiday Concerts, Sweet was the Song. I will write about that program and post the program notes shortly.

Music is one discipline where new wine does more than merely fit in old skins. The alchemy of such pairing yields richly imaginative originals, invites comparison and connection, and adds layers of texture from which meaning is created and experienced.

One of my favorite past-times is sitting with my i-tunes library and creating playlists that pique my imagination at any given moment. (I have about 5,000 "songs" on my computer, grouped into about 60 playlists, only one of which is not classical. It is a list of about 70 songs, most of which are by the Beatles & Radiohead, for the record).

Last weekend, I was talking with one of my best friends, Steven White (artistic director of Opera Roanoke), about a gala-style concert program for the opera next season. We both had been thinking a lot about Faust (I mused on Gounod's Faust last month after a visit to Chicago--see "Romantic Triangles" below). Steven had put together a draft of a fantastic Faust program, drawing on excerpts from three of the great operatic settings of the legend--Gounod's Faust, Berlioz's Le Damnation de Faust and Boito's Mefistofele.

It happened to be Halloween, and with Faust and Mephistopheles on the brain, I decided it would be way-cool to create a "Scary Music!" list to play while the neighbors' kids trick-or-treated. As a spokesperson for the arts, a director, and an educator, one is always looking for another avenue to expose kids to classical music. I'm sure my Halloween playlist was lost on most of the kids and their parents, but I enjoyed it. Besides excerpts from the Faust adaptations, both those above and Liszt's Faust Symphony, Berlioz's "March to the Scaffold" and "Witches' Sabbath" from Symphonie Fantastique made the cut, as did the opening of Verdi's Macbeth, and Mäntyjärvi's Witches chorus, "Double, Double, Toil & Trouble" (which the Chorale is reprising this Sunday in concert). The third movement of Henze's guitar sonata devoted to Shakespearean characters is a musical portrait of Lady MacBeth, and the "Dies Irae" from his instrumental Requiem is harrowing, and makes "scary" horror-film music sound like cartoons. Ives' "Hallowe'en" was the opening track and James MacMillan's stirring elegy to a falsely accused witch, The Confessions of Isabel Gowdie, closed it.

It was MacMillan's motet, O bone Jesu, that prompted the present essay. MacMillan is a Scottish Roman Catholic composer and one of the most widely performed, admired, and acclaimed composers around. He is not more well-known in the US because our country is stupid. His music is challenging--the "Confessions" mentioned above opens with beautifully sighing string lines that eventually yield to jarring, percussive attacks, like the fall of an axe (or guillotine). This music does not shy away from depicting the violence of its subject, the martyrdom of a falsely accused "witch." And therein lies much of its power and relevance. But such relevance is challenging--in a variety of ways--and that is (partly) why such music is not as popular here in our commodity-driven, entertainment-addicted, attention-deficit-escapist "culture." But I am not as jaded or cynical as that statement would suggest. I just want people to turn off their tv's, turn away from video games for awhile, and spend TIME with truly meaningful art like MacMillan's music. I don't condemn "pop" culture per se. I commend art culture. Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" is an analagous work--one that depicts centuries-old events AND works as a contemporary allegory through the prismatic lens of the creative imagination. Such works offer a mirror through which the participant (both the performer AND the audience) not only has a better understanding of history, but of human nature and experience. It is such understanding that adds meaning and contributes to what philosophers and teachers of all ages have dubbed "the well-lived life." SO, maybe this is a sermon after all...

Anyway, soap-boxes aside, I just wanted to write a bit about some new music inspired by some of the old. Macmillan's "O bone Jesu" was inspired by his Scottish ancestor, the Renaissance composer, Robert Carver (c.1484-1567). Carver's 19-part motet features virtuosic textures and allusions to numerology (composers have always been attracted by the mystic qualities of numbers, and the marriage of science--acoustics, physics--and sound). MacMillan echoes Carver's 20 repetitions of the central word "Jesu" in a work that is characteristic of its composer--evocative, striking harmonies, independently moving vocal lines, adorned with the cries and sighs of Scottish folk song, all balanced in a canvas of colorful originality that is immediate & engaging. If you have never heard MacMillan's music, stop reading and go download this piece!

Or, if you want a perfect example of the "new wine in old skins," the old-and-new-together, check out Harry Christophers and the Sixteen's new recording of MacMillan and Purcell, "Bright Orb of Harmony." The Sixteen is one of the finest pro chamber choirs in Britain, and along with Stephen Layton's Polyphony, my favorite, "go-to" ensemble when I'm listening. Following the passions of their conductor, the ensemble specialises [sic!] in Renaissance, Baroque, and contemporary music.

In 2000, the Sixteen began a Choral Pilgrimage to contribute to Britain's Millenium Celebrations. What a novel idea. Arts organizations leading nation-wide celebrations by touring their country. If the commonwealth of Virginia is listening, I volunteer the Chorale to bring the finest choral music into the schools and communities of our great state. Oh, right. You cut our funding. Sorry...

Anyway, their 2009 Pilgrimage celebrated the 350th birthday of Henry Purcell and the 50th of his latest musical offspring, James MacMillan, and the aforementioned recording is one of the fruits of that tour. The pairing could not be more apt & fit. Purcell's singular, expressive, harmonically-pungent writing captures the essence of the Psalms, Litanies, and Prophets he set. If Benjamin Britten was Purcell's 20th century heir, then that torch has been passed to MacMillan, who consistently responds with deeply felt, richly drawn, yet unaffected, immediately appealing music. In addition to the Carver-inspired motet, O Bone Jesu, two of MacMillan's Strathclyde Motets for communion are included (so-called for the University choir that commissioned them). One of MacMillan's most effective miniatures is the a cappella elegy, A Child's Prayer. This was the first work of MacMillan's I ever programmed, and simply stating that produces an intense itch to program it again. It was a response to the 1996 Dunblane tragedy in Scotland, where a gunman massacred some dozen schoolchildren. As it was one of the first mass-killings of its kind outside of the US, it shook Europe with acute force.

MacMillan's simple & haunting motet features two solo treble lines who weave an angelic & transcendent, chant-inspired duet over a dirge-like choral texture. As the annotator in this new cd observes "its musical no less than its theological consolation provides a sense of peace beyond the desolation." If that sounds esoteric or, on the other hand, unsubstantiated, it is worth quoting the composer himself, a devout Roman Catholic whose mostly religious music transcends both the singleness of its inspiration and the specificity of its subject(s):

"Even in our post-religious secular society, occasionally even the most agnostic and sceptically inclined music lovers will lapse into spiritual terminology to account for the impact of music in their lives. Many people still refer to music as the most spiritual of the arts."

I have been trying to get at why such music is "different." Not necessarily better (though I believe it is), but different, and significant, and worth the time and effort. And therein is another factor we can apply to my sermonette above about "pop" v. "art" culture and why the latter suffers in our country. Art requires participation--effort on behalf of the listener/observer/audience member. We've lost something in translation in our high-speed, hi-def world. And yet, amidst the latest version of Windows or the iphone or whatever, there is a renewed thirst for meaning, and a hunger for significance. I think there is also a revived interest in making connections and repairing gaps. And I believe music such as this may be just the think* to fill those voids. It's no surprise that many of the works on my newest playlist, "old and new" share that religious affinity upon which MacMillan remarks. Besides MacMillan & Purcell, I have Kile Smith's Vespers, another striking work--for chamber choir and Renaissance band (commissioned by Piffaro)--that looks backward for its source while sounding refreshingly original.

MacMillan's Roman lineage goes back to Monteverdi and the Catholicism of the Tudors (well, until Henry wanted a divorce, quite another digression). Kile looks to the Reformed tradition in a work that makes new wine of old Lutheran hymns. I hope the Chorale will be able to realize its dream of getting back to performing these masterworks, old and new. I'm planning on a Monteverdi Vespers for its 400th anniversary in 2010 (itself a study of old & new practices in a single work). Then I want to do Kile's Vespers. And then MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross paired with Buxtehude's passion-tide cantatas, Membra Jesu Nostri. The exciting young Brittish composer, Tarik O'Regan, has written a major work re-working the music of the medieval composer, Machaut, in his rousing Scattered Rhymes. Tarik's piece is not religious, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have those numinous and spiritual qualities that evoke such responses. I want to pair it with Machaut's seminal mass setting in honor of Notre Dame. A seven-hundred year-old work that is a specific product of a French Catholic still speaks in an ageless & relevant voice of the powers of the human imagination. There may be no one "universal" language. But music is a great second, and one that makes life more meaningful.

That's enough to keep me listening, making connections, musing, and sharing why, to paraphrase another modernist (Debussy, who looked back in order to move forward) "music is the best means of expression we have."

So this was a sermon, after all, Thank you for indulging me. Until next time.

*Neither I nor my spell-check caught this "mistake." Since its Freudian nature is rather apt, given the context, it stands.


Melissa said...

Golly, Macmillan is really amazing. Have you heard the St. Iggy's version of "Christus vincit?" It's on our Wondrous Love recording. I did the solo in it--the one where I'm hung out to dry on a high B diminuendo forever at the end.

I'm so excited to read about all this other Macmillan stuff. I need to bone up.

Hey--Tomorrow night we're doing The Little Match Girl Passion at WNYC's Greene Space which will be broadcast/live streamed at 8:00pm. or 93.9 in NYC. It's pretty amazing.

Scott Williamson said...

Thanks! I LOVE your 'Christus Vincit' and I didn't realize that was you--you go! Break a leg tomorrow night. I will try to tune in after we finish up our Chorale concert. Toi, toi, toi!