On 7 March, 2019, my biggest work to date, The Martyrdom of the Saints, was premiered in St Machar's Cathedral. Below is the review that was released in the University of Aberdeen's Music Department weekly newsletter, by Alan Cooper:
THE MARTYRDOM of the SAINTS
by MICHAEL MERRILL
Libretto by Dr RAY ALSTON
THE UNIVERSITY OF ABERDEEN CHAPEL CHOIR
THE MARTYRDOM SINGERS (In the gallery at the rear of the Cathedral)
THE UNIVERSITY OF ABERDEEN STRINGS
PERCUSSION ENSEMBLE: PETER NEY, MURRAY BARTLE, EUAN MacDONALD, ANNA MATHESON
ALEX WITHERS: Tenor, (THE PROPHET)
ROSS CUMMING: Baritone, (THE LORD)
PROFESSOR ANDREW MORRISON: Organ
PRE-RECORDED SPEAKERS: BISHOP ANNE DYER, Dr RAY ALSTON, Dr RANDALL KEMPTON, Rev MARYLEE ANDERSON, MARGARET CARLAW, JORDAN NICHOLES, RACHEL NICHOLES, SAM CHIBA, BISHOP JOEL FERREIRA, HELEN MERRILL, PRESIDENT EMILY GOLDIE, MARC HALLACKER, Rev DAVID HUTCHINSON, MICHAEL MERRILL, Dr PHILLIP COOKE, Dr DAVID OLSEN, AND PRESIDENT LEE McLEMAN
The Martyrdom of the Saints by Michael Merrill is an epic work, heroic even. Actually when all the performers are written down on paper they do not seem all that much, nothing like Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand for example but the way in which Merrill managed to marshal his forces made the work seem colossal in its impact. There were two choirs, the Chapel Choir lined up in front of us and in the Gallery, the ‘Martyrdom Singers’ a smaller ensemble who allowed the music to span the whole area of the Cathedral. The string group consisted of nine or ten players, basically pairs each of first and second violins, two violas, the programme said two cellos but I thought I saw three and there was a single double bass. However the sound they produced seemed very much larger. Really good players always manage that, don’t they? The four percussionists were marvellous, able to make crashing sounds on bass drum, or gong for instance and there were many instances of the most delicate playing as with Peter Ney on glockenspiel.
Throughout the work Andrew Morrison’s organ playing gave the music a marvellous fullness. The two solo singers were fantastic, Alex Withers a lovely clean clear tenor and Ross Cumming with his most authoritative singing as The Lord. Didn’t he soar up to his highest notes with such magnificent ease and clarity. His solo, ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed thee,’ had a gorgeous gentle melody which Ross really put across beautifully to us.
The pre-recorded speakers moved the action of the work on apace. Their sheer variety, both male and female voices gave the work an extra spaciousness.
The choir section ‘Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord’ began a capella then Peter Ney joined in with the glockenspiel and in the next section there was a lovely violin solo. What luscious music.
So much of Merrill’s harmonic writing was like that. In the fifth section there were fantastic crescendi and then in ‘The Days of Sorrow’ some delicious pianissimo singing.
The fantastic colour, richness and drama of this music was amazing. The conclusion had real Hollywood lavishness, (am I allowed to say that?).
Thursday’s performances of both pieces were absolutely magnificent. Every singer, every instrumentalist urged on by a fantastic conductor in Mark Singleton were on top of their form. My colleague at University music in the sixties, Iain Watson (he got a first), who was always trying to get good musicians together when in those days they were thin on the ground did not live to hear Thursday’s performance. If he had, I think his head would have exploded. He could not have begun to imagine how brilliant Aberdeen University music has become. Let's hope that today’s politicians who seem to be so keen to cut funding for music do not manage to spoil it all and take us back to the sparsity of the sixties.