MacMillan choral premiere to take place in Chicago

June 02, 2011

James MacMillan's "Alpha and Omega" will receive its world premiere this Saturday at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

The performance of Bach’s epic St. Matthew Passion last month was the first local fruit of Soli Deo Gloria, the Glen Ellyn-based organization founded by conductor John Nelson to commission and promote sacred music.

Soli Deo Gloria is following up with an event more concise yet equally noteworthy with the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Alpha and Omega this Saturday in Hyde Park.

The Scottish composer is perhaps best known for Veni, Veni Emmanuel, the percussion concerto that launched both his career and that of percussionist compatriot, Evelyn Glennie in 1992. Emmanuel remains his most performed work yet MacMillan’s subsequent music is even more distinctive, often infused with the composer’s strong Roman Catholic faith yet with a compelling, decidedly contemporary edge.

Macmillan, 51, has composed prolifically, and his recent works include a well-received Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto and an individual take on Christ’s Seven Last Words from the Cross for chorus and orchestra.

The commission from Soli Deo Gloria came about quite naturally, says MacMillan.

“They’ve known me over the years and I had quite a close association with John Nelson and Peter Bannister and some of the people involved,” said the composer from his home in Glasgow. “I’m very interested in sacred choral music and liturgical music and that seems to be the main area of interest with Soli Deo Gloria as well.”

MacMillan’s Alpha and Omega is a six-minute setting for unaccompanied choir of a chosen text from Revelation (21:1-6a — “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth”).

“They were clear that they wanted a setting of this particular extract from Revelation,” said MacMillan. And that’s fine with me. It’s a beautiful text and it seemed very suitable and settable.

“I would describe it as quite a joyful piece but it’s kind of mysterious too. The opening is kind of polyphonic but as the piece continues and the text says ‘Behold the dwelling place of God is with man,’ it becomes more contrapuntal. I divide the chorus so first you hear the sopranos and altos on their own and then the tenors and basses.

“I like exploring different types of choral texture—and also not just doing a syllabic treatment of the text but a more melismatic treatment as well.”

Although Alpha and Omega is brief, the writing is virtuosic and packs a lot into just six minutes, says conductor Kallembach. “The work is evocative in its cascading harmonic patterns, as if reality, as we know it, is being peeled away, layer by layer,” he says. There is a “consoling lyricism followed by a thrilling recapitulation of the opening chords that hearken back to the start and the words ‘I am the beginning and the end.'”

MacMillan, who will be in Chicago for this weekend’s performance, is increasingly spending more time in the U.S. His St. John Passion received an acclaimed U.S. premiere by Sir Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony Orchestra last year and the composer just returned from Minneapolis where his Piano Concerto was debuted with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist and Osmo Vanska conducting. He’s currently working on a setting of the Credo for chorus and orchestra.

The soft-spoken Scot doesn’t see a great evolution in his compositional style over the years. “These things develop almost subconsciously,” said MacMillan. “It’s not a planned thing, so I don’t necessarily notice it.”

“Yet the more I’ve used voices, the more I’ve thought practically of how those resources might be used.” he said. “And that may have had an impact even on my orchestral music.”

James Kallembach leads the Rockefeller Chapel Choir and the University of Chicago Motet Choir in the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Alpha and Omega 4:30 p.m. Saturday June 4 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in Hyde Park. The program will also include MacMilllan’s Changed and Heycoka Te Deum and Britten’s Antiphon. Admission is free.

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