Sir James MacMillan at 60: 'This piece is exultant, mystical and joyful'

This article is from 2019

Sir James MacMillan at 60

credit: Hansvander Woerd

The Edinburgh International Festival marks the Ayrshire-born composer's 60th birthday with a special series of concerts

Even on the actual day of his 60th birthday, James MacMillan is working. Taking time out to chat about the Edinburgh International Festival's celebration of his big 6-0, he puts on hold writing the programme notes for his own Cumnock Tryst festival, which takes place in his homeland of East Ayrshire.

But it's all in a day's work for a prolific composer in a year where he assumes an exceptionally high public profile. 'It's been great so far,' he says, 'with some lovely events, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at Easter. Then there's the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in August.' The BBC SSO play the work they premiered there in 1990 and which was one of the first to propel MacMillan to fame. The Confession of Isobel Gowdie has now had so many performances that no-one counts them anymore.

The Edinburgh International Festival, however, showcases his less frequently heard music, along with the first performance of a highly significant new score. 'Although the choice was basically the Festival's,' he says, 'we were pursuing the same line.' How that line manifests itself is a range of music over five different performances.

From the orchestral repertoire, there's the BBC SSO's Scottish premiere of the kaleidoscopic concerto for orchestra Woman of the Apocalypse, plus a new version of Quickening from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the voices of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, RSNO Junior Chorus and The King's Singers.

The brand-new piece is Symphony No 5 'Le grand inconnu'. 'There are some pieces I write, then forget about and wait for the first performance,' says MacMillan. 'But, with this work in particular, I put in a lot of special energy and it's been very much in my mind, mulling it over, with the score sitting on my desk.'

MacMillan isn't sure he is the right person to answer the question of what makes this particular piece so special. 'It's big,' he says, 'for choir and orchestra, and seems a bit of a new departure in that it is the culmination of a number of strands.' 'Le grand inconnu', an exploration of the Holy Spirit, has been commissioned by the Genesis Foundation, whose chair is businessman John Studzinski.

'The new symphony has grown out of conversations with him, along with Harry Christophers, conductor of The Sixteen, and it's very different from the Stabat Mater I wrote for them a few years ago. This piece is exultant, mystical and joyful, while the Stabat Mater is very much the opposite. I am very curious to see what it's like', he says.

Sir James MacMillan at 60

credit: Marc Marnie

Vocal music, particularly choral music, is something about which MacMillan is passionate. 'When I was a young composer at Edinburgh University, I didn't foresee the growth of the choir as being such an important facet of new music,' he says. 'No one really thought of writing for choirs, with modernism focused on the virtuosity of instruments, including the voice, if music was written for voices. Now, we have more authentic ways of thinking about the voice and the fact that The Sixteen have come to the fore on a diet of pre-Baroque repertoire has actually meant that they've been a seed ground for new music.'

Not only Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, but also groups such as Tenebrae and the Marian Consort are programming early music with new music. Audiences for choral music are growing, with singing increasingly recognised as enhancing wellbeing. 'It's marvellously exciting,' says MacMillan, who, with O Bone Jesu, was The Sixteen's first commissioned composer. From that starting point, their relationship has built up steadily, bearing much subsequent fruit, now including the new symphony about to be unveiled.

He is similarly excited about the Festival picking up on All the Hills and Vales Along, with singers from the National Youth Choir of Scotland being joined by Whitburn Brass Band. 'It's great this is happening', he says, 'especially with these wonderful players and the singers of NYCoS, whose international reputation is amazing.'

Aside from these formal concerts, MacMillan's music in his 60th birthday year is reaching everywhere from the Sistine Chapel to the Royal Yacht Britannia and a very special Festival service, featuring The Sixteen, at St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral.

RSNO, Usher Hall, 10 Aug, 7.45pm, £15–£48; Sir James MacMillan at Greyfriars Kirk, 16 Aug, 8pm, £25; BBC SSO, Usher Hall, 17 Aug, 5pm, £10–£24; SCO, Usher Hall, 17 Aug, 8pm, £15–£48; Festival Mass, St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral, 18 Aug, noon, free.

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