religious compositions

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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