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James MacMillan: reviews of St John Passion premiere

(June 2008)

“James MacMillan has delivered a St John Passion that stirred its premiere audience to a standing ovation.” So wrote The Independent, witnessing the spontaneous public response to this major new choral-orchestral work, composed as an 80th birthday present for Sir Colin Davis at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

The first performance at the Barbican on 27 April was clearly as significant for the religious as for the musical community, as noted by The Observer: “It is not often you see the Archbishop of Canterbury lead a standing ovation… Clearly, the archbishop shared the ecstatic audience’s view that a great new work had entered the repertoire”.

In recent years Colin Davis has championed James MacMillan’s music, making the composer a natural choice to create this special score. Following the London premiere and recording for the LSO Live label, Davis will conduct performances of the St John Passion with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam on 8/9 April 2009, and with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the 2009/10 season. The German premiere takes place on 14 March 2009 with the Rundfunkchor and Sinfonierchester Berlin conducted by Simon Halsey.

The vocal forces for the St John Passion are skilfully layered: a small, plainsong-inflected ensemble narrates events as if from a timeless illuminated manuscript, while the full chorus switches between the mob outbursts of the turba and a series of reflective motets. The dramatic core of the work is focused on the baritone role of Christ, “sung with awesome authority by Christopher Maltman… MacMillan gives Christ elaborate, declamatory passages full of anger and bitterness. This is not a saviour going submissively to the cross, but a furious rebel” (The Observer).

“Davis is a wily conductor, and never have his instincts been more accurate. For MacMillan has come up with a masterly work that has all the hallmarks of a 21st-century classic… MacMillan is a master of ratcheting up the tension, building the drama, his subtle use of syncopation adding to the effect. But he can also turn his hand to the most lyrical, vulnerable music. There is a tremendous sense of wonder for Christ’s “This is my body” passage, and again for the Crucifixus, a dream-like sequence that seems to exist in another dimension… There is another mesmerizing passage in “Jesus and his Mother” where the two choruses sing together, interweaving their lines with great beauty.”
Musical America

“A riveting and remarkable work; a new-minted classic”
The Scotsman

“A blazing blockbuster, a piece as fiercely communicative as anything that the 48-year-old MacMillan has written before…. The end of Part One was masterly: no loudspeaker wailing as the Crucifixion loomed, but a resigned, pianissimo meditation, threaded with keening instrumental solos.”
The Times

“The compelling performance transcended the score’s significant technical demands to underline the depth of feeling and tremendous emotional impact that MacMillan has achieved in this powerful score.”
Daily Telegraph


> Further information on Work: St John Passion

Photo: James MacMillan with Sir Colin Davis at rehearsals for the St John Passion (Credit: Matt Stuart)

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