Performances of J.S. Bach are not to be brushed aside lightly. But in the Philadelphia Singers' Saturday-night concert pairing of Bach with the contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, the group's heart was so much more in the latter composer - with a hugely gratifying outcome - that the first-half Bach performance might as well have not happened.
One of the great choral works of recent times, MacMillan's 1994 Seven Last Words From the Cross, written for eight-part chorus and strings, is no stranger to Philadelphia, but was given something close to a standard-setting performance at Church of the Holy Trinity.
Though the composer describes himself as a "radical Catholic" (referring more to the manner of his religiosity than anything political), his Seven Last Words projects a sense of vast implications with world-out-of-joint harmonies that seem to address not only the Crucifixion but also the Bosnian genocide going on when the piece was written.
The Philadelphia Singers' high level of preparation was only the foundation for the performance, but was not to be taken for granted. The piece is full of collage effects, with the singers divided into sections that come not only from vastly different tonalities, but also from different centuries, all with their own spiky personalities, some littered with penetrating grace notes that can sound like Middle Eastern chanting or spasms of pain. MacMillan climaxes sometimes have high notes that are all the more dramatic for being barely reachable. Philadelphia Singers hit them just fine without losing the effect.
At times, MacMillan knits such disparate pieces together with an underlying chant, much in the style of Renaissance-era music, posing a different kind of challenge for the singers faced with singing long-held notes while all hell is breaking loose overhead. Other sections are stark outcries, repeated relentlessly and confrontationally, with the words "behold thy son" suggesting a Brueghelesque panorama of earthly horrors.
Some performances retreat from the violence of the earlier movements - prettiness is possible in MacMillan's choral writing - though Philadelphia Singers music director David Hayes maintained edgy tension, greeting every new idea with a fresh sense of astonishment and with well-judged vocal coloring right down to spellbinding exhaling effects in the final movement's string writing.
Bach's Cantata No. 182 "Himmelskonig sei willkommen" felt like the work of a different group. Chorus members seemed to have trouble hearing one another, the contrapuntal components often failing to mesh well.
Arias were a different story. The ensemble's policy of plucking soloists from its ranks has yielded haphazard results, but not this time. Bass Colin Dill, mezzo-soprano Alyson Harvey, and tenor Thomas Strawser vocalized with winning tone and good Bach style. Yet their performances revealed the huge difference between polite extrapolation of the music's 18th- century meaning and the firsthand experiences that informed MacMillan.