Wednesday 9 March 2016

Visceral, emotionally charged... thoughts on Seven Last Words

Ahead of our performances of James MacMillan's Seven Last Words our Artistic Planning Director describes why she has a particular 'soft spot' for this emotionally charged piece.

Friends often ask me about the concerts we have coming up here at Britten Sinfonia, and I’m in the enviable position of always being able to wax lyrical about the next thing we’re about to do, since my role allows me to have a hand in planning all our events.  I’m never going to give the green light to anything I don’t want to hear in a concert, so the seasons are always chock full of wonderful works and spectacular artists.  I don’t generally have “favourite" concerts, as each one is so very different, with its own back story and compelling drama.  However, I have to admit to an enormous soft spot for our forthcoming event over Easter, since it features one of my Desert Island Disc pieces (er, should Kirsty ever invite me on the programme):  James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross.

I first met James MacMillan whilst I was working at the Philharmonia Orchestra, where one of my roles was planning the orchestra’s new music series, Music of Today.  I loved managing this series (which is still going strong, incidentally), with its bite-sized concerts offering staggeringly good performances of brand new music, all for free. The real creative brain behind the series at that time was James MacMillan, who held my hand and guided me throughout, shaping the content of the series, introducing me to a whole host of composers from across the globe, always so generously and with great care to offer balance and variety.  Since that time I’ve been lucky enough to have worked on several of Jimmy’s new works over the years, here at Britten Sinfonia, but his Seven Last Words has always remained a really special work for me.

MacMillan’s vocal writing is always incredibly effective, and as a choral scholar, I would’ve dearly loved to have got my teeth into singing this; sadly it wasn’t composed until after I’d left college and had well and truly hung up my vocal chords.  Of course, the subject matter is emotive in itself, but the vocal writing is so visceral, contrasting  with the beautiful string lines so painfully at times that it moved me to tears the first time I heard it; and the heavy silences that occur throughout the work are so emotionally charged that I always find it impossible not to be affected.  In our world of what can seem like ceaseless over-emoting on a daily basis, I am more than grateful for that.

Artistic Planning Director

Performances of Seven Last Words from the Cross take place on Sun 20 Mar at Birmingham Town Hall, Wed 23 Mar at Cambridge's King's College Chapel and Fri 25 Mar at London's Barbican Centre. For full details and to book tickets click here.

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