March 2013: St John Passion in Wells

Wells Cathedral, Saturday 16 March 2013

Source: Reg Burnard

Americans would describe this as awesome. For once, they’d be right.

Scotsman James MacMillan worked almost every emotion one can imagine into his setting of the Passion. It is brutal, overpowering; shocking, even; strident, breathtaking, contemporary; all consuming.

To perform it for the first time in the South West of England, in the presence of the composer: the massed choirs of the City of Bath Bach Choir, the Exeter Festival Chorus, the Wellensian Consort, the Southern Sinfonia; Mark Stone as Christus.

There could be only one conductor with the sheer guts to take on this Herculean task: Nigel Perrin.

It was more than a year to fruition. There were many sacrifices; all were worth it.

Perrin’s interpretation of this monumental work transformed it from a modern oratorio into a work of art, an act of religion; there was an intense conviction, from all, that heralded Easter.

The brashness of clashing, discordant brass; almost excruciatingly strident half and quarter tones and percussion fireworks laid out a cacophony of sound into which was woven a tapestry of choral brilliance. It was chilling but gripping, in your face but seeping to your soul; and then, suddenly, switched off to a cruelly disciplined tranquil poignancy. How much practice did that take?

Chorally, there were searing colours in the undertones; sometimes a hint of Scots lilt - and yet it is one of those works where you don’t go home humming a hit song. There aren’t any; it’s the emotion that stays.

Baritone Mark Stone, Christus, was powerful and eloquent.

Truly, awesome.