Sounding The Passion At Duke

On April 9-13, the Duke Divinity School, Chapel, and Department of Music hosted “Sounding the Passion: Encounters in poetry, theology, and music,” an occasion that began with a series of readings, talks, and panels and ended with the US premier of a new composition by renowned Scottish composer James MacMillan. MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion for choir and orchestra, co-commissioned by the Divinity School, has for the past four years been the principal focus of the Duke-Cambridge Collaboration in theology and the arts. The work had been given its world premier a month earlier, in Amsterdam. Its realization at Duke brought it full cycle, back to one of its places of origin, where its creators had an ample forum to contemplate and illuminate it. Dr. MacMillan’s visit, the St. Luke Passion premiere, and the week’s surrounding events were made possible in part by a Visiting Artist Grant from the Office for the Vice Provost for the Arts at Duke.

The new Passion was created in a deeply cooperative manner. Since spring 2012, a group of ten scholars and artists from the UK, Ireland, and the US have helped MacMillan shape this new account of Christ’s death, as told in the Gospel of Luke. MacMillan described it as “a very unusual way of working… [that] widened the conversation into something very fascinating.” All who were involved believe their collaborative, interdisciplinary mode of artistic creation is a promising model for future projects.

The events began on Wednesday evening with a reading by Irish poet and linguist Micheal O’Siadhail, a member of the Duke-Cambridge Collaboration. O’Siadhail’s gifts for both word and theater shone through as he shared poems that drew on 30 years of life, love, and work, interspersing them with stories, jokes, and performative reflections on language. The audience sat close to the stage in the dark, facing a lectern lit only with clip-on desk lamps. “It was beautiful. Everyone was transfixed. You could hear a pin drop,” said Duke alumna Christina Carnes Ananias.

The next day, many of the scholars and artists involved in the project—O’Siadhail, MacMillan, DITA Director Jeremy Begbie, St. Andrews Professor of Systematic Theology Alan Torrance, Divinity Dean Richard Hays, Duke Divinity Professor of Old Testament Ellen Davis, Cambridge Regius Professor of Divinity David Ford, and Duke Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Philosophy Ray Barfield—gathered for a panel discussion. After a brief lecture on the project’s origins from Jeremy Begbie, the panelists considered their collaborative process from the vantage point of their various academic and artistic disciplines. A lively discussion with the audience followed.

In a lecture later that evening, MacMillan placed his Passion in the context of modern classical composition and faith. The work of English Romantic composer Edward Elgar served as a dialogue partner. Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley responded with acute commentary on the connection of MacMillan’s music to Scripture and Catholic tradition. After the presentations, MacMillan engaged in a broad-ranging dialog with Duke graduate and undergraduate students, local community members, and singers from the children’s choir. The evening ended with a live performance of MacMillan’s composition for piano and violin, Kiss on Wood.

The lecture hall was full for Friday’s first event, a panel discussion entitled “The Future of Theology.” Sarah Coakley, Alan Torrance, and David Ford each presented their vision for the contemporary theologian’s work. Torrance, who is also a violinist, set the tone for the afternoon’s dialog when he quipped, “It’s the most fun you can have without a fiddle.” The provocative, energetic presentations stimulated a vigorous conversation involving the panelists, students, faculty, and members of the broader community.

James MacMillan then joined Duke music professor Stephen Jaffe and a group of doctoral students for a composition workshop hosted by the Department of Music. Several students presented their new orchestral, electronic, and operatic pieces. The dialogue that followed centered on the particular blessings and struggles of contemporary composition.

On April 13—Palm Sunday—a large audience gathered under the soaring vaults of Duke Chapel to hear the US premier of MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion. Rodney Wynkoop conducted a full orchestra and the combined forces of Duke Chapel Choir, the Durham Children’s Choir and the Riverside High School Choir. MacMillan’s vision of the story of Christ’s betrayal and death began with a startling fortissimo “Maria!” and ended with a soft tensile hum from the children’s choir. After a standing ovation, audience members described the sweep of the music as “beautiful” and also “relentless.” They commented as well on the works’ accessibility and on how deeply they were moved by it. How fitting that it was presented on a day that commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before his death.

It was a grand, successful culmination of the four-year collaborative effort. A new way of composing contemporary classical music had proved itself by producing a beautiful and meaningful way of hearing the life and death of Jesus, the work’s resonance deepened by knowledge and inspiration that crossed disciplines and institutions.

Read more about the St. Luke Passion on the Boosey & Hawkes website. Photos of events, audio, and video of lectures and poetry readings are available on DITA’s Flickr and iTunes pages.