Is James MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross a contemporary masterpiece? Terry Grimley previews Saturday's performance at Lichfield Cathedral...
By happy chance I recently happened to catch an afternoon concert on Radio 3 in which Jeffrey Skidmore, founder and director of Birmingham chamber choir Ex Cathedra, was conducting the BBC Singers.
The second half took an unusual form. It consisted of a continuous sequence interpersing some of the Latin American baroque pieces Ex Cathedra have successfully recorded in recent years with the Cantos Sagrados by James MacMillan, three settings of poems by Ariel Dorfman and Ana Maria Mendosa on the subject of political repression in modern Latin America.
Apparently, this programming was only possible with the composer's blessing: "We ran it past MacMillan and he said 'What a great idea!'," Skidmore told me this week.
On Saturday he will be conducting more music by MacMillan, this time with Ex Cathedra and the Northern Sinfonia in Lichfield Cathedral.
The work, anticipating Easter, is the 45-minute Seven Last Words from the Cross for chorus and string orchestra. Originally written for a television broadcast in 1993, it is that rarity in contemporary music - a piece which many seasoned listeners have hailed as a masterpiece.
Already commercially recorded twice, the piece spans a wide range of expression, from sublime lyricism to harsh dissonance (the driving-in of nails is graphically depicted in slashing Psycho-style string chords), in the contemporary but communicative idiom which has brought the Scottish composer, now in his mid-40s despite the still-youthful looks, a rare combination of critical and popular sucess.
"McMillan writes fantastically for voices," says Skidmore. "Everyone has something interesting to do. But he also writes very well for strings, and in Cantos Sagrados the organ part was a real organ part."
On Saturday the MacMillan is juxtaposed with two established masterpieces of early 20th century music - the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for strings by Vaughan Williams and the same composer's unaccompanied Mass in G minor.
The Mass (which has a slightly unlikely local connection, having been given its first performance by the Cityof Birmingham Choir in the Town Hall in 1922), is Vaughan Williams' homage to Tudor polyphony. In fact, some listeners might easily mistake it for a piece composed four centuries earlier, though not those with tutored ears.
"I would never mistake it for a Renaissance piece," says Skidmore. "Maybe it's what Vaughan Williams thought Renaissance music was. But I remember my tutor telling me that the first composer ever to write in modes was Vaughan Williams. Recently we were doing some Eton Choirbook [15th century] stuff, and there's something so oaky, heart-of-England about it that's so powerful, and Vaughan Williams got that going again. I enjoy exploring these links.
"Vaughan Williams and MacMillan are not so far away from each other as you might expect. Also, they are two composers finding a new language, Vaughan Williams at the start of the 20th century, McMillan at the start of the 21st."
MacMillan already has an extensive catalogue of choral music which takes its place alongside operas, symphonies, concertos and instrumental pieces. Jeff Skidmore still has hopes of playing a part in extending it still further.
"I remember asking his agent some years ago if he might do something for us, but he was booked solid until now. I'm still hoping we may be able to do something, perhaps for our 40th anniversary [in 2010]."
He also hopes that this first collaboration with the Newcastle-based Northern Sinfonia may develop into an ongoing relationship.
"This is the first time we've performed with them. We tend to do one-offs and then people realise how good they are and they book us in to perform them. So they're never really one-offs."
* Jeffrey Skidmore conducts Ex Cathedra and the Northern Sinfonia in music by Vaughan Williams and MacMillan at Lichfield Cathedral on Saturday at 7.30pm (Box office: 01543 308209).