Sir James MacMillan at 60

Ahead of his 60th Birthday Concert with percussionist Colin Currie and SCO Chorus (21-22 Feb), Sir James MacMillan talks to Carol Main about his career as a composer and conductor.

James MacMillan (Rectangle)

What better ways for a composer to celebrate his 60th birthday than to write new music and to have his music heard? Both are happening in appropriately significant quantities for Sir James MacMillan’s 2019 significant birthday, with the SCO leading the way in first performances of new work and programming key scores already in the orchestral and choral repertoire.

Although the actual birthday is in mid-July, the SCO’s special Sir James MacMillan 60th Birthday Concert falls across 21/22 February in Edinburgh and Glasgow, when the Orchestra returns to its 1992 commission, the percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. First performed at the BBC Proms that summer, its soloist then was Dame Evelyn Glennie and the piece has now had - somewhat unusually for a contemporary concerto - over 500 performances worldwide. “We gave up counting after 500,” says MacMillan. Alongside the concerto is Seven Last Words from the Cross, premiered in Glasgow in 1994. “In many different ways the two pieces suit the SCO,” says MacMillan. “The SCO premiered Veni, Veni with Evelyn Glennie, and are now performing it with Colin Currie, who has taken it up and travelled round the world with it. Seven Last Words hasn’t been done by the SCO, so I’m really looking forward to conducting the Orchestra and Chorus and bringing it all together.” Opening the programme with Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten introduces two of MacMillan’s own favourite composers to the concert too. “It’s an in memoriam piece for another composer,” he explains, adding, “I have a lot of affection and admiration for the music of Arvo Pärt, especially its serenity, beauty and sadness. I’m very close to Britten’s music and whenever I get the chance to programme it, especially abroad, I take the chance to do so.” Not all composers conduct, of course, but it’s a role which has evolved and developed for MacMillan over the years. “I usually conduct works of my own and other 20th century music. Not every composer wants to do it, but I’ve always loved performing and conducting is my way of getting out there and working with fellow musicians. Writing is very solitary.” Although it’s now a baton rather than the trumpet of his youth that he picks up in performance, singing has consistently been something in which MacMillan has participated. “I’ve always sung,” he says, “right through university and even up to three years ago when I had to step in as a tenor to the church choir I took in Glasgow. I love working with choirs.” 

Dame Evelyn Glennie plays 1992 SCO Commission, the percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, with composer Sir James MacMillan


Just looking at MacMillan’s output so far, it is clear that choral music, much of it inspired by sacred texts, is important to him. In writing for his special birthday year, it is chorus and orchestra to which he has turned, with the SCO, The Sixteen and Genesis Sixteen, a special scheme for young artists, preparing to premiere his Symphony No 5, MacMillan’s first choral symphony. The exact details of its premiere are still under wraps, but MacMillan is clearly excited about it. “There are two choirs and the SCO,” he says. “I’ve spent a whole year writing it – it’s big! The texts are quite diverse, taken from St John of the Cross and TS Eliot, and in words and sounds it’s an exploration of the idea of the Holy Spirit, but not through the usual channels of Veni Spiritus, Veni Creator. It’s more an in depth look at the history of the Holy Spirit and trying to probe what it is through those writers.”

It's all a long way from the plastic recorder in an East Ayrshire classroom that started off MacMillan’s music-making. “After that, I moved onto trumpet and cornet, playing with my grandfather in colliery bands. He then got me organ tutors and generally encouraged me. It was through Cumnock family and friends that I got started. I’m writing a volume about it, coming out this year.” The University of Edinburgh introduced MacMillan to Professor Kenneth Leighton as his first composition teacher. “He taught in an old-fashioned way, but it’s vital for a composer. It was brilliant training and I think that they are soft-pedalling a bit now.” A PhD from Durham University led to a job at Manchester University, with the early commission, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, first heard at the BBC Proms in 1990, placed MacMillan even more firmly on an ascending path. But before then, the SCO was already influencing the route his path would take. “In the 80s, Kathryn McDowell, who now runs the LSO, was the education person. It was very exciting. We worked on a lot of education and outreach together, especially with Peter Maxwell Davies’ Strathclyde Concertos. We’d get kids trying to make their own music. I’m still doing it, but now at Cumnock Tryst.

This extra-curricular work, as well as composition, is about what a composer can do for his community, for the country he lives in and for the musicians he works with.” As well as composing and conducting, MacMillan is now planning the sixth Cumnock Tryst Festival in his home town, inspired by the models of Britten in Aldeburgh and Maxwell Davies in Orkney. In common with these festivals, Cumnock Tryst encourages and supports young composers, with talent coming from local schools. Involvement from the SCO is once again critical in giving opportunity for that new talent to emerge, this time through MacMillan’s Masterworks programme in East Ayrshire and with hopes that the Orchestra will feature even more prominently when a new school opens in Cumnock in 2020. At every stage of his career, the SCO has been with Sir James and it’s a relationship that will clearly continue with much success long after this special 60th birthday year.

Carol Main


Edinburgh - Thursday 21 February 2019
Glasgow - Friday 22 February 2019

PÄRT Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten
MACMILLAN Veni, Veni, Emmanuel
MACMILLAN Seven Last Words from the Cross


Kindly supported by Resonate, a PRS Foundation initiative in partnership with Association of British Orchestras, BBC Radio 3 and Boltini Trust