For more details about James MacMillan, his background, and his purposes in writing his St. John Passion, I’ll refer the reader to the review of the superb LSO Live recording of the work, which I published as an introduction to this concert, its U.S. premiere. MacMillan wrote the Passion as an 80th birthday tribute to Sir Colin Davis, and it was jointly commissioned by the London and Boston Symphony Orchestras. An Ayrshire Catholic of Irish extraction, James MacMillan became connected to music early, and his experience with the Passion according to St. John goes back to the traditional chanted readings of the text as part of the Good Friday liturgy. While most of the work consists straightforwardly of the Gospel narrative and the Improperia from the Roman Catholic Good Friday Mass, its selection and musical treatment are highly personal, giving it a dramatic and humanistic quality, which must please Sir Colin no end.
I always look forward to the Berkshire Bach Society’s New Year’s Bach concerts, this year their classic program of the Brandenburg Concertos straight through. I was especially pleased that they scheduled a third concert at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, allowing us to hear them in their full glory, that is, in a fully satisfactory acoustic, more than that, in fact, since the Music Hall offers a unique bloom all its own. It seemed a bit much at first, as the musicians pulled themselves together after Kenneth Cooper’s perfectly clear initial beat in the first concerto. Everyone was quite happily together after a couple of bars, and the rest was a marvellous blend of atmosphere and clarity. In fact it was really quite a revelation to hear some passages—especially the entire sixth concerto—in this unique environment.
Mr. Zander, who leads the Boston Philharmonic, has leveraged his considerable communication and educational skills into creating something beyond the mere making of music.
In his important collection of anthropological photography, Robert Gardner made clear the connection between the ethnographer’s record of life in western Papua or Ethiopia and the photojournalist’s observation of downtown Barcelona or Dallas. Alen MacWeeney’s Irish Travellers, Tinkers No More is one further document in this fluid branch of study. The travellers were and still are a constant presence in Ireland, where MacWeeney was born and raised, although, at least in the 1960’s when these photographs were made, a largely unseen one—this is, on purpose. A professional need, it seems, sucked Alen MacWeeney into their society, and he remained, to observe and experience it in depth. Now, after some forty years, this experience has been made public.
To hear a program of music by Mahler and the members of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern) five days after the earthquake in Haiti is to experience questions about the role that the arts, and music in particular, plays in our lives. Burke and Kant recognized two categories of artistic experience, the beautiful and the sublime, one characterized by orderliness, balance, and grace, the other by overwhelming power. Beauty is associated with the works of humans, and the sublime with the acts of nature (and/or God, depending on your persuasion). Both pieces on the second half of the Vienna Philharmonic’s program (Webern and Mahler) contained climactic moments that can only be described as devastating, as close as art can get to imparting the experience of disastrous loss. As we read the papers about the destruction of a country, we struggle to find the connection between our own lives and the unimaginable suffering and trauma being experienced by our neighbors and fellow humans. Music can help.
Last Friday, January 15th, the Cantata Singers under Music Director David Hoose continued their season centered around the music of Heinrich Schütz, on this occasion performing at the First Church, Cambridge. This can be a problematic venue, with blurry sound, especially for solo voices. But Friday there were no solo voices, and the a capella mixed choir and eventually a small orchestra sounded fine—well balanced and clear enough, at least where I was sitting, which was fairly close. The audience was large and enthusiastic. The fine concert deserved their appreciation.
The Scottish composer James MacMillan is not nearly as well-known in the United States as he is in Britain. Hence it is a good thing that an outstanding recording of his St. John Passion is available from LSO Live for purchase as discs or as an iTunes download, as the BSO prepares to perform it under Sir Colin Davis, who commissioned the work as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. There is no better introduction to a composer or to a work than simply to listen to it, and a recording fills the requirement nicely, especially of a performance by Sir Colin, who has a special gift in presenting unfamiliar music with the passionate convication that it is the very best of its kind.
For the fourth year Master Drawings New York will bring together a distinguished group of dealers from Europe and the United States to exhibit in Upper East Side galleries during “Old Master Week,” the period in late January when Sotheby’s and Christie’s hold their auctions of old master drawings, paintings, and sculpture. This is an heady occasion when collectors, curators, and dealers can gather to seek out discoveries at the auction houses, admire the dealers’ offerings, see exhibitions at the Met, the Frick, and the Morgan Library, as well as to catch up with friends and share insights and gossip. Last year the enterprise was a surprising success, given the dismal economic climate. If many things seem uncertain and there remain many reasons to be apprehensive, the climate in this rarified world should be more propitious this year. What’s more, in the old master world one is dealing with more-or-less known artists and works, and there is less speculation than in contemporary art. This is also—let’s not forget—an opportunity for newcomers to the small but very pleasant world of master drawings to become acquainted with these extremely knowledgeable experts and to view a sample of their taste on the walls.