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The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam plays host to the world premiere of James MacMillan’s new Christmas Oratorio, performed on 16 January by the Dutch Radio Philharmonic and Choir in the prestigious NTR ZaterdagMatinee series, with a radio stream available after.

James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio receives its world premiere on 16 January as a concert and NTR broadcast in the prestigious ZaterdagMatinee series at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The composer conducts the Dutch Radio Philharmonic and Choir with soloists Mary Bevan and Christopher Maltman. The original premiere performance scheduled this month by the London Philharmonic Orchestra has had to be postponed due to COVID restrictions until the 2021/2022 season and further performances of Christmas Oratario are planned by the other co-commissioners, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic.

> Listen to NTR's stream of the premiere
Live radio broadcast streamed free on demand from the same page after- listen from 16:05.

> View the music and text of Christmas Oratorio at our Online Scores area

The full-evening oratorio, reflecting on Christ’s birth and the associated spiritual messages and outpourings of joy, is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, SATB choir and an orchestra including double woodwind, brass and percussion, plus harp and celesta. Texts selected by MacMillan range from Latin liturgical texts to a Scottish lullaby, poetry by Robert Southwell, John Donne and John Milton for the reflective arias, and for the tutti tableaux at the centre of each of the two parts biblical accounts from the Gospels of St Matthew and St John. As in the baroque oratorio tradition each part is topped and tailed by orchestral sinfonias.

James MacMillan describes how “there are various characteristic elements and moods throughout, from the ambiguous opening which mixes resonances of childhood innocence with more ominous premonitions, pointing to later events in the life of Jesus. There are also intermittent moments of joyfulness and the childhood excitement and abandon of Christmas at various points, especially in the choral Hodie Christus Natus Est and in some of the orchestral interludes.

“Sometimes we hear the ‘dancing’ rhythms associated with some secular Christmas carols. There is also, at points, a sense of narrative when the chorus take the role of the Evangelist as he tells the Nativity story. The 16th and 17th century English poems provide opportunities for reflection in the four solo Arias, firmly based in the oratorio tradition. There is also at points a sense of mystery in both orchestral and choral textures, such as in the setting of the O Magnum Mysterium text in Part 2.”

The Christmas Oratorio is MacMillan’s largest work to date reflecting on Christ’s birth. His output includes many works on Advent or Christmas themes including his first percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, a number of ‘O’ antiphons including O Radiant Dawn, and Christmas carols including Seinte Mari moder milde written for Kings College Chapel Choir, New-made for a King for upper voices and Dutch Carol for unison children’s choir. Works around the theme of birth include his cantata Quickening, for vocal ensemble, choir and orchestra, setting poetry by Michael Symmons Roberts.

>  Further information on Work: Christmas Oratorio

Photo: Marc Marnie

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