Chorus And Orchestra Pack a Punch
Bel Canto and Chamber Orchestra find intensity in contemporary choral masterpiece.
Scottish composer James MacMillan (born 1951) wrote “Seven Last Words” in 1994. American composer Morten Lauridsen (born 1943) wrote “Lux Aeterna” three years later. The two works could hardly be more different. “Seven Last Words” treats the most tragic event of Christian faith — Jesus on the cross — with great drama, using all the tools of contemporary composition to underscore the tragic moments. “Lux Aeterna” banishes the darkness, and looks backward musically, drawing upon traditions of Renaissance music to express calm and serenity as central to faith. The Bel Canto, joined by the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, performed these two masterpieces of contemporary sacred music on Sunday afternoon at the Basilica of St. Josaphat. Richard Hynson, who directs both organizations, drew extraordinary performances from each.
Over the years many composers have set the seven last words Jesus spoke from the cross to music. MacMillan sought to draw out the drama of the scenes, choosing distinct characteristics for each section. He selected verses or readings from the liturgy to supplement the basic “last words,” and thereby incorporate the faithful into the scenes.
Many of the features of late 20th century choral music are present in this work: juxtaposition of very soft or loud passages, serial development of simple themes through harmonic progression, dramatic rests between exclamatory measures and dissonance when the subject calls for anguished response. Sections often step from low to high register and from very quiet to full volume, adding low and high voices – often at their extremes – to the evolving palette. Choral sections are frequently isolated, usually at full volume such as in “Women, behold thy Son!” where first the men, then others cry out – flooding the room with sound. A full chorus may overlay text or express agitation by slightly offset entrances. Scenes are painted in dramatic fashion – demanding an emotional response from the listener.
The all-string orchestra carried some of the more dramatic and difficult elements, in transitional sections and on an independent path in shared sections. From the opening whisper in the violins to the low sustained “ground” in the bass and cellos, the orchestra explored a sound spectrum larger than the human voices of a chorus can.
The anguished scene – “I Thirst” contrasted voices and instruments in their highest register. Liturgical phrases sung over a repeating “I thirst “ line in the basses expressed the anguish of betrayal. A slowly-building, shimmering sound from the strings grew louder and faster until it seemed a swarm of bees were echoing around the basilica.
The orchestra had the last word to end the final section. A high theme in the violins, underlaid by cellos and bass, began as legato phrases separated by rests. The measures repeated, each time shortened, until the “breath of Christ” became weaker, shorter, then vanished. The drama reduced the audience to silence.
The Basilica space is sometimes an enemy of dramatic music. But for this performance, the hall boosted the effects. Strategic rests allowed the sound to decay. Bass voices crying out were bolstered by the chamber. Shimmering strings blended even more. Liturgical verses that were meant to represent confusion – even expressed in whispers at one point – were enhanced by echoes. Yet when it mattered, the critical words emerged clearly. MacMillan exposed the critical moments and the chorus sharpened essential elements in the text. The Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra’s string sections managed their role with drama and precision.
Although Lauridsen wrote “Lux Aeterna” three years later, his work honors Renaissance traditions. References to light in liturgical texts observe hope, reassurance and serenity – far from the anguish of “Seven Last Words.” Lauridsen selected five poetic sources and built a meditative work echoing elements of a requiem, with vocal dynamics reigned in. The chorus often sang in unison or with uncomplicated harmony. Several canons engaged sections, but voices were rarely isolated. The orchestra, now augmented by a wind section, served to support the singing and round out the sound.
“Lux Aeterna” is a lovely, approachable work. Closing the evening with this piece should have settled the soul, but the intense experience of MacMillan’s work was not easy to forget. The chorus, although very comfortable with “Lux Aeterna,” brought less passion to the work.
The Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra has been unable to mount many independent concerts in recent years. The critical role they played in MacMillan’s work was a high point of this concert.
Bel Canto will perform Carl Orff’s expressive secular cantata Carmina Burana at the Milwaukee Theater for their season’s final concert May 21st. The Bel Canto Boy Choirs and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir will join them. Additional information and ticket sales can be found here.