New York Classical Review: Austere and Timeless, MacMillan Premiere Proves Compelling at St. Bart’s

Article on New York Classical Review

James MacMillan’s “Since it Was the Day of Preparation …” received its New York premiere as an MMPAF concert event was reviewed on the website New York Classical Review.  The article is reprinted below, or click here to view it on the NYCR website.

Austere and Timeless, MacMillan Premiere Proves Compelling at St. Bart’s

By George Grella
May 05, 2014 at 1:05 pm
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New liturgical works like James MacMillan’s “Since it Was the Day of Preparation …”, which had its New York premiere Sunday afternoon at St. Bart’s Church, are important reminders of both the foundations of the Western classical tradition and how what amounts to two handfuls of notes continues to be an enduring source of invention for thousands of years.
MacMillan’s piece was commissioned by Soli Deo Gloria, an organization dedicated to funding the composition of sacred “choral-orchestral” work from leading contemporary composers (this is the third MacMillan piece they have contributed to). The Scottish composer sets the Gospel of John from a point after Christ’s death to the Resurrection and Christ’s three appearances. At about eighty minutes in duration, it uses the compact forces of a small chorus—whose members double as solo narrators, the disciples, and Mary Magdalene—and a quintet with the unusual instrumentation of clarinet, horn, cello, harp and theorbo.
This is a well made, involving composition, given a performance, conducted by William K. Trafka, that matched the quality of the music: refined, assured, controlled and focused, with the sensation of indescribable expressive intensity and depth just contained under the surface of the notes. The music sounds familiar, in that it is clear and easy to follow, and yet also new. There are unexpected details and an inventive use of traditional ideas that surprise and construct a rigorous internal logic.
One thing that is so refreshing about “Since it Was the Day of Preparation …”, and MacMillan’s work in general, is how his sensibility goes against the grain of contemporary Western thinking about sacred music. He is the foremost composer within the Catholic liturgical tradition (though not confined to that). He does not indulge in easy comfort and blandishments, he expresses both the difficulty and solace of faith, and while he works in tonal harmony, he challenges listeners as often as he soothes them. 
His writing is immediately captivating. The piece starts, unusually enough, with a theorbo solo (played elegantly by David Walker), but rather than make a neo-Renaissance pastiche, MacMillan creates a compelling mix of melodic phrases, harmonics, and dense, strummed chords, and traverses the instrument’s range. The effect is stimulating and grounding, hinting at the contemporary context for the work while setting it deep within the classical tradition.
After the theorbo, the first voice heard was the clear tenor of Christopher Carter, picking up the Gospel at the first sentence after, in the composer’s words, “Jesus gives up his spirit”—thus the title of the piece. The narrative switches between other singers, all of whom sang with an affecting clarity of tone and expression: bass James Whitfield, sopranos Amanda Sidebottom and Martha Sullivan, altos Eliza Bagg and Elizabeth Merrill, and tenor Christopher Ellman.
Structurally, there are solo interludes for each instrument throughout the piece, and three sections where the quintet plays as a whole and accompanies the voices. The interludes alternate with the mostly a cappella sections.
The music also alternates stylistically between austere vocals and the sensual instrumental music—particularly a dazzling clarinet solo played by Benjamin Fingland, the kind of expressive writing that has one envisioning the composer’s hand moving freely across the expanse of the blank page. In contrast, the vocal lines are disciplined and ordered by the requirements of the words.
MacMillan uses the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition of the Bible. He sets the text with a sophisticated sense of harmony, mixing together modes and triads, allowing the voices to wander expressively around a central pitch while also using dissonance to produce acute moments of tension and deeply satisfying release—all in a single line.
Another simple and powerful device MacMillan uses is to have the chorus members play hand-bells in free rhythm whenever Christ, the dignified, subtle bass-baritone Jeff Morrissey, sings. The sonic color is gorgeous, and the bells connect the music to the rituals of the Catholic Mass. The balance between the ringing metal of the bells (and the brightness of the instruments) and the woody purity of the voices works subliminally as an intellectual and spiritual argument for the sacrifices of glories of Christ and those who follow him.
There is a single moment in the piece that encapsulates the musical means, the meaning, and the sheer pleasure of the music’s sound: as Whitfield finished singing about Jesus’ burial, the quintet entered under his last syllable, first sustained on G then lowered to F. The voice and instruments came together on a ninth-chord that, in the cavernous space (unfortunately only half full), rang, briefly but intensely, with a bracing brilliance. It felt like the illumination of the sun after a long period of darkness, just as painful to the eyes, just as warm to the body.
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MMPAF’s New Partnership: Japan Society


MMPAF, located at the crossroads of America’s most vibrant metropolis, is pleased to announce its partnership with the Japan Society.Founded in 1907, Japan Society (333 East 47th Street NY, NY) is the leading U.S. organization committed to deepening mutual understanding between the United States and Japan in a global context. Now in its second century, the Society serves audiences across the United States and abroad through innovative programs in arts and culture, public policy, business, language and education. Japan Society serves as a catalyst for the intellectual and cultural exchange that nurtures and sustains a healthy and productive relationship between the United States and Japan. Its Performing Arts Program is the leading showcase in the United States for contemporary and traditional Japanese dance, music and theater.

Since the inception of the Performing Arts Program in 1953, Japan Society has introduced more than 600 performing arts programs from Japan to an extensive American audience. In addition to its annual season of five to ten full-evening programs, ranging from the traditional arts of noh, kyogen, bunraku, and kabuki, to cutting-edge theater, dance and music, plus educational workshops, lectures and demonstrations, the Society has also been a pioneer in presenting works that are products of collaborations between Japanese and American/international artists. The Society presents established and emerging performers whose artistry strongly communicates an expression of Japanese tradition, art forms, or style. The Society also commissions new works to non-Japanese artists, produces national tours, organizes residency programs for American and Japanese artists and develops and presents educational programs.

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MMPAF’s New Partnership: Kadmus Arts


partner_KadmusArts2MMPAF is pleased to announce its partnership with Kadmus Arts. Where festivals, artists, fans meet. is a site for the festival community: the organizers, the sponsors, the artists, and most importantly, the audiences. From our small studio in the Green Mountain State (Vermont) of the United States, we created the site to help artists, audiences, cultural travelers and festival colleagues find each other — all over the world. Through word-of-mouth and the participation of festivals, artists, and audiences, is now the web’s most popular portal to every kind of dance, music, and theatre festival throughout the world. This site’s goal is to make festivals more accessible and to promote the meeting of cultures, performances, and artists. As you can see on the site, everything is open — and free. Festival goers of the world unite!

The Seven Spaces of Mozart’s Requiem

Saturday, October 27th at 7:30 PM


argento-Oct-2012The Argento Chamber Ensemble, under the baton of conductor Michel Galante, will perform all fragments of Mozart’s unfinished Requiem K. 626 along with composer Georg Friedrich Haas’s Seven Soundspaces (Sieben Klangraume), which link together the fragments of Mozart’s masterwork. To open the program, acclaimed flutist Paula Robison will perform Mozart’s Andante K.315 for flute and orchestra. The featured choir for the program is The College of New Jersey Chorale with vocal soloists soprano, Tharanga Goonetilleke; alto, Silvie Jensen; tenor, Steven Wilson and bass Peter Stewart.

Bach Tour 2012: Follow J.S. Bach’s Footsteps Through Germany

Bach Tour  Date  |  October 23 – 31, 2012

Follow J.S. Bach’s Footsteps through Germany

bach_sunglassesDid you know that Bach spent a month in jail during his tenure as Court Organist and Concertmaster to the Duke of Weimar. Turns out that, in 1717, Bach was offered and accepted a new position as Kappelmeister at the court of Cöthen. Bach appealed to the Duke for his release from the Weimar position, however the Duke refused and threw him in jail instead of allowing him to leave. Bach, of course, used this time productively and composed the “Orgelbüchlein,” a cycle of organ chorale preludes for the entire church year. The Duke finally came to his senses and Bach was allowed to take on his new position.

Join William Trafka, St. Bart’s Director of Music and Organist and the Artistic Director of MMPAF, as he leads a tour of the towns and cities where Bach thrived as a performer and composer. Hear the great organ works of Bach in the very buildings for which they were composed. Marvel at the charming towns such as Eisenach, Arnstadt and Mühlhausen in the luscious Thüringen region of Germany. Join, Co-Tour Director and German scholar, William Fulton as he brings puts these historic places into perspective with 18th century German culture. Discover the rich and varied life of one of history’s greatest composers as you walk in The Footsteps of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Photo Album |  Bach Tour
Photo Credits: Tim Martin

NYTimes Music Review: “The Angels in the Heavens Sing for Themselves”



The Angels in the Heavens Sing for Themselves

Haydn’s Oratorio ‘Die Schöpfung’ at St. Bartholomew’s Church

Truth be told, the “Representation of Chaos” that opens Haydn’s 1798 oratorio “Die Schöpfung” (“The Creation”), sounds oddly decorous to modern ears. Granted, it begins with a short burst of brassy dissonance, and altered versions of that gesture return during the slow, dark-hued overture that pours forth before the angel Raphael’s serene narration of the familiar scene from Genesis: the formlessness of the earth, the darkness on the face of the waters. And when a second angel, Uriel, announces the creation of light, Haydn provides a magnificent explosion of C major orchestral timbre.

Yet the salient musical features of this depiction are graceful melody and tonal harmony. To experience it as the primordial chaos Haydn intended, you need to imagine hearing it with 18th-century ears.

The Japanese early-music specialist Masaaki Suzuki offered technical support, in the form of a period-instrument account, for listeners inclined to make that imaginative leap — and a beautifully shaped performance for those who simply wanted to hear Haydn’s richly painterly score — on Monday evening at St. Bartholomew’s Church. His forces were the Yale Schola Cantorum, a superb chorus, and an orchestra of 41 players drawn largely from the Yale Baroque Ensemble and Juilliard415, the student ensemble of the Juilliard School’s historical performance program.


Conducting Bach in a 21st Century Urban Environment: A Case for Retreat


It was the end of March and the Great Music series concert featuring Bach’s Magnificat and Easter Oratorio was just a few weeks down the road. My hope and dream for this concert was to capture the spirit and eloquence of this extraordinary music in a way that honors its historic importance but also resonates for the modern listener. But, I was concerned how I would properly prepare myself to conduct these works from a different era in a busy, noisy, distracting and at times overwhelming environment.

My first thought was that music never occurs in a vacuum; to try to remove oneself from the present in order to represent art from an earlier time is folly and essentially impossible. The first steps toward an historically informed performance had already been taken by inviting singers and instrumentalists who know, love and understand this style to participate in the performance. Also, the instruments to be used were copies of Baroque instruments which play at A=415 hz., exactly one-half step lower than A=440hz, the pitch used by modern orchestras.

I decided that I needed solitude and quiet to study and to open up myself to the musical possibilities of these two masterpieces. Through a friend, for three days I was given permission to use the choir room at St. Peter’s Methodist Church in Ocean City, NJ, a bustling summer resort on the Jersey shore but a very quiet place during early April. It was there that I discovered the wealth of musical imagery and nuance that Bach used in these works and how each movement becomes a separate painting in an art gallery depicting rich landscapes. I worked hard to hear individual lines and how they might be sung or played in a way to be clearly heard and shaped but fitting into the entire canvas. Most of all, I rediscovered the indisputable genius of Bach with his lucid sense of structure, unparalleled musical invention and heartfelt expressivity. I came away with a deeper sense of his great role in the history of Western civilization.

Did my stay by the ocean in this peaceful place affect the actual outcome of the performance? It certainly opened my mind and heart to the infinite ways of interpreting what Bach has written and allowed me time and focus to explore its many possibilities. I wouldn’t have spent those three days in any other way.

Third String Quarterback Makes Good

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In 1722, Johann Kuhnau, cantor of the Leipzig St. Thomas’ Church, died. Although Georg Phillipp Telemann , then cantor of Hamburg’s Academic School of the Johanneum was the candidate strongly favored by the Leipzig city council to replace Kuhnau, Telemann refused the position, which was subsequently offered to Christoph Graupner. Graupner also declined the position, which the Leipzig city council then offered- reluctantly- to Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach held this prestigious post for 27 years until his death in 1750.

It was during his tenure in Leipzig that Bach composed some of his most resplendent sacred choral works including his Magnificat and Easter Oratorio intended to be sung for the great feast days of Christmas and Easter. Hear these sumptuous works on Tuesday, April 24 at 7:30 pm sung by St. Bartholomew’s Choir and an orchestra of period instruments including trumpets and tympani at St. Bart’s, Park Ave between 50th and 51st St. Experience the joy of Bach in two of his most festive works.