Gloriana opened its annual subscription series on 3 April with a presentation of three works inspired by the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The first half of the concert was occupied by Scottish composer James MacMillan’s 1994 composition Seven Last Words from the Cross; the second half opened with a complete gear-change — Cristóbal Morales’ Parce mihi, Domine, made famous by the Hilliard Ensemble’s recording of it with Jan Garbarek’s glossa on their disc Officium — before returning to the world of recent modernism in Erik Ešenwald’s Passion and Resurrection from 2005.
Ensemble, player and conductor were on surest ground in the two recent works. Gloriana is little short of a miracle in the musical life of Melbourne for its willingness to continue to perform works of this type — namely, large-scale concert works for choir and orchestra beyond the typical oratorio/Passion/cantata repertoire, and Gloriana’s concert archives are littered with their championship of music that is unflinching and uncompromising in its modernity even if, as here, (in my opinion), the musical standard of the works wavers. The performers took listeners on what was an epic journey in MacMillan’s Seven Last Words. MacMillan has had little competition in the area of Seven Last Word settings; the two best-known previous examples being Schütz’s extremely fine oratorio-style setting (an example of vocal settings) and Haydn’s, originally instrumental in form. MacMillan’s setting trod an interesting line between these two traditions: no soloists, but using a choral ensemble (and thus reflecting something of the Schütz tradition) and an integral instrumental ensemble (as in Haydn’s setting), as though there were things that instruments could say that singers cannot. MacMillan’s setting was originally conceived as seven separate movements and the finished “integrated” work shows signs of narrative strain.
Gloriana’s performance of this work was not flawless, but the signs of vocal strain and momentary hesitation that were sometimes in evidence were more than balanced out by an impressive commitment to the drama of this monolith of a work. Particularly impressive was the choir’s commitment to the power of dynamics and its willingness to enter into the raw violence of the musical expression, more than matched by the instrumental ensemble.
Ešenwald’s work is a different beast entirely and, although at the level of text and structure a finer work than MacMillan’s, it lacks his monumental unity of vision. The burden of work fell to Cristina Russo, who fulfilled the roles of meditatrix and narrator heroically, notwithstanding the considerable demands the composer makes in terms of tessitura. The emotional climax of this work, Part IV’s harrowing dialogue between Mary and Jesus in the garden, was performed with a breathtaking serenity.
This concert reminded me once again that an event like this starts as the vision of a single person. That person here is director Andrew Raiskums, whose unfailing commitment to the music and command of the details of often-long scores sees Gloriana and the music it advocates in safe hands.
Andrew Raiskums directed Gloriana Chamber Choir and Players in Passion and Resurrection at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Carlton on April 3, 2016.