Berwick Chorus

Berwick Chorus review: Dynamic tension

Oregon Bach Festival performance of Frank Martin's 20th century classic reflects composer's spiritual conflict

by DANIEL HEILA

I am surprised by the number of musical settings of the Catholic Mass that have been written by twentieth-century composers who have reason to be apostate: Igor Stravinsky with his long-suffering wife back in Russia and his life-long mistress at his side, Benjamin Britten and Lou Harrison with their devoted same-sex relationships, Leonard Bernstein’s life of pop fame and decadence.

I am neither Catholic nor Christian. But I can see (and hear) the tidal influence that this faith can have on artists: piety and devotion at one time, decadent behavior, or “anti-Christian” lifestyle at another. Perhaps that psychological dissonance is what drove these artists to excel, to push themselves to great achievement: a dynamic tension that arises from simultaneously attempting to transcend and to dissolve into a Faith.

Frank Martin, a devout Christian and son of a Calvinist minister, wrote his Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir between the years 1922 and 1926; the last movement was not finished till four years after the first four were composed. Martin was loath to have the work performed and it did not have its premier until 40 years later. The composer explained that it was “a matter entirely between God and myself.” This suggests the best behavior of Tolstoy’s beloved Father Sergius, who strived to live for God without living for the praise of others. The tidal pull of Martin’s faith against the good graces of his audience must have played a part in both the suppression of the piece and its great beauty.

Matthew Halls led the Berwick Chorus at the Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

Matthew Halls led the Berwick Chorus at the Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

However, since its premier, the Swiss composer’s work—performed in Portland earlier this year and at the Oregon Bach Festival last month—has achieved great success and critical acclaim. I wonder how that settled with Martin. Did he struggle with the same doubts that Father Sergius did, when the poor hermit realized that, indeed, he “lived for men on the pretext of living for God.” I think that Martin did. I think that he struggled with the beauty he unleashed with his piece (its torn-paper sonic climaxes), wondering whether the beauty served the aesthetic needs of his audience or the ascetic purpose of worship. After leaving the Agnus Dei unfinished for several years, he chose to end the mass with a self-effacing, humbling study in the coming together of estranged elements. 

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Requiem, wrestling with the angels

The premiere of Sir James MacMillan's "A European Requiem" at the Oregon Bach Festival rages against the dying of the light

EUGENE – A perilous slide overcomes the Kyrie eleison, a keening, piercing swoop of sound, a lament rising above the orchestra like an unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question. Lord have mercy, the words mean, and in countertenor Christopher Ainslie’s delivery they are not so much an invocation as a genuine plea.

Anyone expecting a smooth and soothing slip into the oblivion of the afterlife from Sir James MacMillan’s ambitious new requiem, which had its world premiere on Saturday night at the Oregon Bach Festival here, was in for a shock. A European Requiem is less a work of solace, though it has some tender passages of relief, than a deep and fiercely felt argument about the unknowable – a lamentation not for an individual soul but for the soul of a continent, for the idea of a broad and culturally cohesive Europe, which MacMillan sees as slipping away. Great ideas, when they die, die hard: one does not lose, the music seems to say, without a struggle, and in the struggle lie the sense and passion of the thing being lost.

Conductor Matthew Halls and soprano soloist Sherezade Panthaki. Photo: Athene Delene

Conductor Matthew Halls and soprano soloist Sherezade Panthaki. Photo: Athena Delene

You don’t need to agree with MacMillan that an ancient idea of what Europe means is passing, or even understand the specifics of what is a rigorous historical and philosophical argument, to feel the urgency and texture of the debate in the music. A European Requiem pulls out all the stops, taking full advantage of the sonic possibilities of solo vocal lines; the festival’s very large and potent Berwick Chorus, whose members stood on rafters seemingly halfway to the sky; and the estimable festival orchestra, which undertook a rigorous forty-minute workout, especially in the percussion section. Conductor Matthew Halls, who is also the Bach Festival’s artistic director, led a splendidly well-articulated performance, pinpointing its textural shifts and vital balancing of tension and ease.

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