World and U.S. premieres of MacMillan St. Luke Passion

U.S. premiere of MacMillan St. Luke Passion at Duke University Chapel

James MacMillan's new St. Luke Passion was premiered in Amsterdam at The Royal Concertgebouw on March 15, 2014, and at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, on April 13, 2014.

Renowned Scottish composer James MacMillan has long been drawn to the Passion narrative because of its compelling drama, its powerful images, and his personal faith. It is MacMillan's lifetime goal to set all four Gospel Passion accounts to music. In an interview withThe Scotsman, MacMillan stated, “The plan is to get them smaller and smaller.” In contrast to the almost operatic impact of his St John Passion (2007), the St. Luke Passion is pared back, with a Baroque-style chamber orchestra.

National Youth Choir with MacMillan and Stentz
Nationaal Jeugdkoor with composer James MacMillan (left) and conductor Markus Stentz (right)

In a move away from traditional Passion settings, where soloists and the Evangelist provide the narrative, MacMillan wrote his St. Luke Passion with no soloists, no recitatives, no arias; all the narrative portions are sung by the chorus. MacMillan explains his strategy in an interview:

“I envisage … a flexible approach with the choir director deciding which tutti passages could be sung by a semi-chorus and which single lines might be better sung by a soloist drawn from the choir. I tried to make the choral writing as varied as possible, sometimes homophonic, sometimes with upper or lower voices, at other times just a unison line. The crowd sections move into polyphony to show the chaotic, angry or fearful world of the street.”

I’m hoping the St Luke Passion can be performed by a wide range of abilities … I’ve tried to be as helpful as possible, providing pitch cues and harmonic support, using simple modalities, avoiding angular leaps, keeping sections in repeating metrical schemes, etc.”

Nationaal Jeugdkoor
Nationaal Jeugdkoor

Another unique feature of the St. Luke Passion is MacMillan’s scoring of the words of Jesus to be sung by a children’s choir. As MacMillan explains, “Any Passion that casts Christ as a soloist immediately makes him take human form as an adult male, whereas I wanted to examine his otherness, sanctity and mystery. Employing a children’s choir grants a measure of innocence to Christ as the sacrificial lamb.”

Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
The Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam


Joining an international partnership, Soli Deo Gloria co-sponsored the commission of St. Luke Passion along with the Zaterdag Matinee with assistance from the Concertgebouw, Duke University, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and the Britten Sinfonia. The world premiere took place on Saturday, March 15, 2014, at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, as part of the Concertgebouw’s ZaterdagMatinee series, with the Netherlands Radio Choir, Vocaal Talent Nederland, Nationaal Jeugdkoor, and Netherland Radio Philharmonic led by Markus Stenz.


St. Luke Passion poster

U.S. Premiere

The U. S. premiere took place one month later, on April 13, 2014, at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. In a collaborative venture between the University of Cambridge and Duke Divinity School, British and American scholars met with James MacMillan starting in 2010 to discussion the new work. The concert was the culmination of "Sounding the Passion: Encounters in Poetry, Theology, and Music," a series of April 9-13 events stemming from The Duke-Cambridge Consultation, a four-year interdisciplinary theology and arts collaboration between Duke and Cambridge Universities.

"MacMillan feels this drama within himself; he portrays it in his musical language in a way that penetrates veils of time, pietism, and/or distance to make Luke's account come alive."—CNVC: An Online Arts Journal in North Carolina

Reviews from the world premiere

“MacMillan’s musical language is crystal clear. Musically wrenching sounds combine seamlessly with a sonorous and eminently singable discourse. The modest orchestral forces provide some wonderful effects with diffuse chords, subtle veils of sound and ominous timpani pounding, but other elements of the text’s portrayal are purposely restrained ... The long tutti flurries and choral murmurs are a fitting conclusion to this major, yet understated work.”—De Volksrant

“It all works wonderfully well. The mixed choir is supported by a modest … ensemble which enhances the work’s strength. The organ also plays a prominent role and contributes some magical effects. The performance, in the capable hands of Markus Stenz, the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Radio Chorus and National Children’s Choir was absolutely first class.”—De Telegraaf

“MacMillan’s exceptional talent for vocal writing has been described before in these columns and the St Luke Passion is no exception. His broad tonal idiom with Gregorian chant at the core has strong listener appeal. The performance was superb and MacMillan was visibly moved by the audience reception. Please can we agree here and now to hear this work every year around Easter time?”—Het Parool