Friday, January 26, 2007

Ecumenical Concert at St. Mary’s: Experiencing Contemporary Scottish Music First Hand

Entry for 25 January 2007:

Today is the 248th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland. There is a whole Burns culture around his poetry and life, and an elaborate Burns Night culture has emerged, much of it organized around Burns Suppers, which extend for several days. Haggis is traditionally eaten today, and I was pleased again to be able to have vegetarian haggis at lunch today, noting also that all the tables in the staff refectory had wee plaid cloths laid out on them as centrepieces.

However, instead of going to a Burns Supper or a Celtic Connections concert, we went to a concert at our church (St. Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral on Great Western Road), featuring a range of religious vocal music (much of it for congregational singing), including compositions by James MacMillan and John Bell, two of Scotland’s major church musicians. This was a special concert/service as part of a week celebrating Christian Unity Week, and brought together leading musicians from Presbyterian (Church of Scotland, represented by Bell) and Catholic (represented by MacMillan) denominations, on neutral (Episcopal) ground (a concrete example of the famous Episcopal via medias, or middle way).

John Bell is associated with the Iona Community, an ancient pilgrimage site off the Island of Mull, which has fascinated my parents and friends of ours in Toledo for years. An early monastic centre of Celtic Christianity, it was later burned by the Vikings; but in modern times, it has been revived, partially rebuilt and is now a centre is ecumenical work including social justice and liturgical/church music revitalization. The latter includes the Wild Goose Resource Centre, whose wonderful music and hymns we have been enjoying since our arrival at St. Mary’s. Iona is now high on our list of places to connect with in our exploration of Scotland, and feels to me like a place that strongly resonates with the spiritual ideals of my parents, especially my dad. John Bell led the concert/service, sporting red shoes and a red tie, with long hair and greying beard, looking like someone who had been a 1960’s student radical, which he was. He is a skilled congregational music leader, entertaining and energetic, and soon had us all singing magnificently.

James MacMillan was an interesting contrast to the most exuberant Bell. He is considered by many to be Scotland’s leading contemporary composer, and not just of church music (as a quick Google search will quickly reveal). I am looking forward to exploring his recorded music over the coming months; I was certainly impressed by the short pieces I heard last night, among them a simple but highly effective Sanctus from his St. Anne Mass and a more complex choral piece, “A New Song”, with richly interweaving voice lines and swirly organ bits. (It was composed for St. Bride’s Scottish Episcopal Church, which is 3 blocks from our new flat in Hyndland.) He skilfully led the audience in a short responsive Psalm setting for which he was the cantor, illustrating modern Catholic psalmody. Also sporting longish greying hair and beard (but not so long as Bell), he was a much more modest presence at the concert, but still his contributions were deeply impressive.

I can’t go into all the highlights of the evening, but will only say here that this was the most impressive concert of church music I have ever heard. Diane and I were deeply moved by Bell’s song, “There is a Place,” composed for those grieving for the children murdered 10 years ago in Dunblane, Scotland. We were amused and sometimes puzzled by the Scots language readings, including the barely-comprehensible Lorimer translation of the Gospel reading of the boy Jesus in the Temple. We were also pleased that they managed to slip in a couple of Burns poems in honour of the poet’s birthday.

As we walked the half-hour to our new flat, we realized how much of the vital life of Glasgow is now within walking distance for us and how wonderful it is to be in a place where concerts like the one we heard tonight can take place. Here, in Glasgow, culture here is not just something to be heard on the radio or on recordings – it’s right here in front of us, like James MacMillan sitting on the pew in front of us, patiently and modestly waiting for his turn.

Overall, what strikes me now is how the music combines so many elements that resonate for me: It was melodic but contemporary; classical but of the people; spiritual but deeply political and concerned with social justice; rooted in both traditional Scottish music and landscape, but also tuned into world music traditions (e.g., South African, Puerto Rico, Morocco). As we listened, I imagined the presence of my father (who died last March) hovering over. I am quite certain he would have approved; and I have a sense that even now there is a place where he is listening to all this, smiling and tapping his foot.


James MacMillan said...

Welcome to Glasgow, Robert! I was overwhelmed at how beautiful the whole thing was last night. John Bell and I had no idea how many people would turn up, and were delighted at the response. I am a great admirer of John - he does this kind of thing all over the world, and it can be such an enriching experience for people hoping for greater ecumenical togetherness.

With all my best wishes,

God bless,

James MacMillan

Robert Elliott said...

I was extremely pleased that James MacMillan had read this entry and commented on it. This is another example of the first-hand experiencing of culture that I was writing about in the entry, and that we really appreciate here... But what I haven't been able to figure out is how he was able to pick up the entry and post a comment to it less than 40 minutes after I published it. I know that we are living in a small world, but that, as my kids would say, is almost scary!

Isabel said...

On Friday and Saturday, I was in the company of the woman you sat beside on Thursday evening. Were you aware that she is the leader of the Iona Community? I have only dipped in and out of your blog, so don't know if you have discovered yet how small and interconnected Scotland is.

Best wishes