Music Director David Hayes discusses James MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion

The New York Choral Society (“NYCHORAL”) presents the New York premiere of James MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion on April 8, 2017 at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York. Music Director David Hayes brings NYCHORAL and Orchestra, The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and organist Jason Roberts together to perform this powerful new work. NYCHORAL’s Executive Director, Pat Owens, recently sat down with David to discuss his thoughts about bringing MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion to New York.

David, Macmillan’s St. Luke Passion is quite new. How did you come to it?

I’m always looking for new works, especially those from composers I admire and that I enjoy performing. My earliest encounter with MacMillan’s music was in the late 90’s with his percussion concerto, Veni, veni Emmanuel – a fantastic piece for strings and percussion written for Evelyn Glennie. I performed it at the Verbier Festival with Ms. Glennie and the Curtis Orchestra. Shortly after that, I prepared The Philadelphia Singers for a Philadelphia Orchestra performance of MacMillan’s Quickening – which was the U.S. Premiere. My most recent encounter with his music was a performance I did a few years ago of his incredibly moving Seven Last Words.

I was very intrigued when he wrote a large-scale St. John Passion a few years ago. When I heard how he had set The Luke Passion and then saw how approachable it was for a chorus like ours (with small orchestra, organ, and children’s choir), I thought we really must do it!

The St. Luke Passion has been a subject for Bach, Penderecki and now Macmillan. What sets Macmillan’s St Luke Passion apart from the others?

Well, interestingly, the existence of a Bach St. Luke Passion can’t be ascertained. The piece that is supposed to be that is really a pastiche by another composer, not an authentic Bach work!

MacMillan’s setting is unique in several ways. It has no soloists for one. The narrative (the role of the Evangelist), the crowd scenes, Peter, and Pilate are all sung by the chorus. However, the most intriguing thing about MacMillan’s setting is the idea of setting the words of Jesus to be sung exclusively by a children’s chorus. Another feature is the structure. MacMillan sets a prelude (using words from Luke’s gospel from the earlier chapters dealing with the Annunciation) and a postlude (using text from Luke’s gospel and Acts which comes after Jesus’ death and which foreshadow the Resurrection and ascent into heaven). These two dramatic frames to the story are not part of traditional passion settings and point to the fact that this passion cannot be used (as a whole work) liturgically. So, it becomes a sacred drama.

The roles of the chorus and the children’s chorus bring an intriguing nuance to the this St. Luke Passion.

It makes for a highly unusual dramatic and musical palette. What could seem monotonous and unvaried reveals itself to be highly varied and intensely dramatic. The idea of the purity of the children’s voices being the vehicle through which Jesus speaks is inspired. And it allows for an inner symbolism to be revealed as sometimes the children sing in unison and sometimes in three parts symbolizing the Trinity.

When the piece premiered in 2013, a reviewer noted that this St. Luke Passion straddles boldness and intimacy. That’s interesting.

I think it matches the nature of the passion narrative which does straddle moments of intense violence and tumult with moment of aching intimacy. They are both there in the story and Macmillan is responding to it.

In our rehearsals, there has been some discussion about the the role of women in this work.

I’m not sure I’ve completely formed all my insights on this! I have noticed that the Prelude is added with its focus on Mary and the Annunciation and the crucifixion story has a text that makes a point of mentioning the mourning of the “Women of Galilee”. It just seems to me that there is something of a feminine viewpoint to elements of this piece – not scientific, but that’s my sense!

The choice of St. Bartholomew’s Church for NYCHORAL’s premiere of this important work seems perfect.

The work has a significant organ part and I wanted to find, not only a great instrument to be part of the performance, but also a venue that would underscore the meaning of the work. Obviously, it could go in any hall with a good organ – but there seemed to be something so right about doing it at a great space like St. Bart’s on the night before Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week which is focused on the story of The Passion.

Macmillan has spoken about the role of liturgical themes in secular society. It’s interesting (and maybe prescient) that NYChoral premiered Joseph Vella’sThe 'Hyland' Mass: A Prayer for Unity in Diversity the day after the U.S. election last year and here we are presenting a MacMillan piece that presents a familiar liturgical story in a new way amidst a very unsettling time in our society. Can works like MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion bring new audiences to an appreciation of liturgical themes in new choral compositions?

This story is timeless. It’s about persecution and scapegoating; condemning ideas that challenge the status quo. It seems like we need, as a society, to be constantly reminding ourselves of both the dangers and the necessity of speaking truth to power. MacMillan speaks with a musical voice and language that is deeply informed by tradition and yet unquestionably of our time. I think it’s important for NY CHORAL to present works that help people discover the incredible music of our own time – it’s a major focus of what we do. That this piece is so intensely dramatic and has so many layers of meaning allows the performers to dig deeply into the work and find so many satisfactions. We hope to help our audiences also experience many nuances of meaning as we share the musical power of this great choral work.