Sounding the Passion

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Beginning April 9, Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (DITA) will present the result of a project four years in the making: the U.S. premiere of a St. Luke Passion by internationally acclaimed composer James MacMillan.

James MacMillan conducting, © Hans van der Woerd.The project developed out of a collaboration between Duke Divinity School and University of Cambridge faculty that began in 2010. Over the years, scholars, musicians, and writers have met together at both universities to explore how the arts might enrich theological inquiry in both the church and the academy. After former Divinity School Dean L. Gregory Jones suggested that Duke commission a new setting of Luke’s passion narrative from the Scottish composer James MacMillan, the Duke-Cambridge consultation has focused its efforts around MacMillan’s developing composition. Consultation members have offered theological and exegetical reflection on Luke’s text and acted as MacMillan’s conversation partners in discerning its appropriate artistic expression.Duke Divinity School Professor Ray Barfield in consulation with MacMillan.

These efforts will culminate in the U.S. premiere of MacMillan’s stirring and fervent St. Luke Passion in Duke Chapel on April 13, Palm Sunday, at the start of the worldwide Christian celebration of Holy Week. The piece, scored for orchestra, organ, soloists, and two choirs, will be performed by the combined forces of the Duke Chapel Choir, Durham Children's Choir, and Orchestra Pro Cantores, conducted by Rodney Wynkoop.

The piece embodies some of the qualities that are unique to the Lukan narrative. In a recent interview, MacMillan said that he framed the main body of the work—a setting of the passion sequence of Luke chapters 22 and 23—with a prelude that explores the Annunciation, and a postlude alluding to the Ascension as told in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. MacMillan uses English throughout the work, a choice driven by a desire to communicate the story to a broad public.

MacMillan’s work follows his much longer and large-scale St. John Passion of 2007. According to MacMillan, engaging with Luke’s gospel has driven him toward “a more spiritual, inward and pared-back approach to create a focused work about an hour long.” The piece is written so that a variety of ensembles, including university, church, and community choirs, might be able to perform it. This impulse reflects both Luke’s desire to reach a wide and diverse community and MacMillan’s commitment to the church at large.

The premiere of this new composition will take place during a three-day event April 9-11: "Sounding the Passion: Encounters in Poetry, Theology, and Music," which will include performances, a workshop, and theological discussion to celebrate the new Passion.

Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley examining the St. Luke Passion score.In a public panel on Thursday, April 10 at Duke Divinity School, the scholars and artists of the Duke-Cambridge consultation will reflect on working with MacMillan. Panel participants will include MacMillan; Divinity School Dean Richard Hays; Duke Professors Ray Barfield, Jeremy Begbie, Ellen Davis, and Kavin Rowe; Irish poet Micheal O'Siadhail, Professor Alan Torrance of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Professor David Ford of the University of Cambridge. Later on Thursday, MacMillan will offer a public lecture that will frame and introduce Sunday's concert premiere, followed by a response from Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley.

Visiting theologians and Duke-Cambridge Consultation participants Ford, Torrance, and Coakley will also hold a panel discussion on Friday, April 11 on “The Future of Theology,” in which they will discuss how they see their discipline developing in years to come. Other events during the week include an intimate evening poetry reading by O’Siadhail on April 9 and a composition masterclass with MacMillan hosted by the Duke Music Department on April 11.

Learn more and register for "Sounding the Passion" events »

Homepage image credit: Night (from the series Golgotha) ©Bruce Herman 1991; 
mixed media on handmade Dutch cotton paper, 60 x 46”; collection of The Stonybrook School; www.bruceherman.com.