‘Passiontide’ review by Alan Cooper

St Machar’s Cathedral was packed to capacity on Thursday evening for Professor Paul Mealor’s Birthday Concert. There was a tangible buzz of excitement at the prospect of hearing the World Première of Mealor’s First Symphony entitled ‘Passiontide’. The event was cordially introduced by the Very Reverend Professor Iain Torrance representing the Chancellor of the University, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, whose kind words printed in the programme were warmly appreciated.

The performance was to be conducted by James Jordan, one of America’s most celebrated choral conductors. Under Jordan’s expert direction it turned out to be a sensational performance of a work that was surely a landmark in the history of symphonic literature. Beethoven opened the door to something new with his choral symphony. Mahler took things much farther but with these composers except possibly with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, the vocal writing was in a sense an add on. In Paul Mealor’s new symphony, the choral writing is the very heart and soul of the work going even farther than the Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams.

The Marischal Chamber Orchestra, interwoven with members of the fully professional McOpera Orchestra, and the University Chamber Choir enlarged with members of Williamson Voices were all on top professional form and the two vocal soloists, soprano Jillian Bain Christie and baritone Sean McCarther could not have been bettered.

The symphony was in two sections each introduced by an orchestral prelude. The first of these entitled ‘Veiled Light’ opened with a disembodied bell chime and string tremolo. That chime was to play an important part in the work, helping to bind it together. The opening music reminiscent in some ways of Arvo Pärt’s new style tonal writing had a mystical, transcendental feel to it. It provided a spine tingling atmospheric introduction to the choral music of the ‘Stabat Mater’. By contrasting a cappella sections with chorus and orchestra and then adding the soprano soloist Mealor certainly gave his music its symphonic breadth. His warm coloured harmonies sometimes with soaring sopranos and deep basses were delicious. Jillian Bain Christie’s rapturous free soaring solo verses were absolutely sublime.

The spirit of Carl Orff came through in a fascinating change of texture and rhythm with splendid singing from the male chorus. Paul Mealor who has added so much of his own musical personality to new tonalism was right in using the inspiration of composers like Pärt and Orff who kept tonal composition alive. Mealor’s own harmonic writing equalled the transcendental inspiration of his texts and the conclusion of the ‘Stabat Mater’ with its rich well disciplined choral crescendo was marvellous.

The orchestral prelude to the second section, the ‘Crucifixus’, was dramatically exciting, the percussion ranging from fierce timpani to sensitive glockenspiel. The opening choral section – ‘How Beautiful on the mountains’, had lovely female voices and a cello solo tastefully recalling the melody O Come Emmanuel. The use of a chime tree in the percussion writing here and towards the end of the work gave the music a certain mystic feel. Sean McCarther’s lovely smooth baritone solos were an emotional high point in the work. In the Finale his flowing recitative gave way to a heart-warming melody, so smoothly and lovingly sung.

Other marvellous purple passages in the second section were Katie Hull’s soaring violin solo, the breadth of the choral harmonies in Drop, drop, slow tears – marvellous deep basses and the vigorous choral singing in The Tree takes living flame. The conclusion of the work where earlier musical ideas were revisited bound the whole work together most satisfyingly and made sense of the whole symphonic format.

I feel that after a first hearing I have barely scratched the surface of this landmark work. I look forward to a CD and the publication of the full score.

Alan Cooper