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22 April 2009

Mills's Passion according to St Mark

Perth // WA // 08.04.2009

Richard Mills Image: Richard Mills  

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra celebrated the Easter season with a performance of Richard Mills’s new Passion according to St Mark. The work was a co-commission by Ten Days on the Island Festival, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, West Australian Symphony Orchestra, The Queensland Orchestra and the Australia Council for the Arts. It received its premiere in Hobart on Saturday April 4th, and Mills conducted it again in Brisbane the weekend after Easter, with the same soloists.

A commission of this scale in Australia is rare, which makes it all the more exciting. The 80-minute work was for chorus, five soloists, organ and an orchestra that included huge percussion and brass sections, harp and piano. Using these tools Mills, a practising Catholic, depicted in the manner of Bach’s Passions the awesome and unfathomable mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. The result was a weighty, profound setting of the ancient story, with the fresh tanginess of something new.

Mills’s legacy of orchestral and opera work gave good credentials for a task of this magnitude. The polyphonic writing for vocal ensemble, used in Love of the Nightingale, was frequently employed for the five soloists, combined with the dense, more brutal orchestral writing of Batavia. Harry Peeters (bass) and Stuart Laing (tenor) sang handsomely, Laing’s contribution was all the more impressive because he replaced Charles Mellor with two days' notice. Sopranos Aivale Cole, Rachelle Durkin and mezzo Elizabeth Campbell were warm-toned and persuasive.

The orchestra and chorus responded well to the weighty, often acerbic writing. Mills's trademark use of orchestra for dramatisation was executed subtly – the reverent string chords as Jesus breathed his last – and more overtly: the woodblock for the donkey Jesus rode, scurrying strings as the disciples fled Gethsemane and the distinctive crow of a rooster as Simon denied his Lord. Other sections were dramatically puzzling, such as the aggressive orchestral accompaniment for the traditionally devotional moment where a woman washes Jesus’ feet with perfume.

Mills structured the Passion into seven sections based around text from the Gospel of Mark and supplemented with chunks from the Old Testament, Psalms, ancient hymns, Hildegard von Bingen and Dante. The cross-referencing brought theological and emotional depth, but in performance much of it was unintelligible (sung in Latin, or with poor diction) and long-winded. The muddy layering of soloists, orchestra and chorus also became turgid in sections. Some judicious editing of text and music would have been appreciated by some audience members who found it hard to stay awake.

The audience weariness could have been partially avoided by omitting the three baroque works tacked on the beginning of the program. The Vivaldi motet In furore iustissimae irae did Rachelle Durkin no favours, showing up the New York-based soprano’s ineptitude in baroque styling. Purity of voice was exchanged for heavy vibrato and abrupt phrasing. Shaun Lee-Chen led a radiant performance of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto RV253, but WASO directors would have done better to program Mills’s work standing alone, as their colleagues in Queensland did.


Subjects discussed by this article:

Rosalind Appleby is a Perth-based music critic. She writes for The West Australian and hosts the program Difficult Listening on the Perth radio station RTR FM. She has been involved in the WA music scene both as a journalist and as a performer.


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