James MacMillan

Proms 2017: James MacMillan – A European Requiem (European Première)

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James MacMillan’s latest religious blockbuster, A European Requiem, was given its first performance in Europe at the Proms a couple of days ago. The piece is a little over a year old (premièred in July 2016 in Oregon), and although its concert hall life has taken place in the midst of Britain’s decision to withdraw from the EU, it was of course composed prior to the onset of that madness. MacMillan has therefore been in the unfortunate position of having to stress that his work is not in any way a response to the UK’s ongoing political inanities. Instead, his concern is very much more generalised, not to say vague; he speaks of the piece looking back to the requiems of Brahms, Fauré and Verdi, and if it responds to anything specific, it’s to Roger Scruton’s book The Uses of Pessimism. Whether or not MacMillan believes ‘Europe’ (however that term is defined) to be ‘dead’ (ditto) he doesn’t say, though he evidently holds the view that it has lost something, which he describes as a “culture of mercy and forgiveness”.

Is there any compelling proof that Europeans are less merciful and forgiving than they were in past generations? Is this a malaise not suffered beyond the bounds of Europe? Regardless of these questions, there are rather more pressing concerns to grapple with in A European Requiem, before one even makes it to any potential subtext and its implications. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: A New Jerusalem

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Wednesday evening in Tewkesbury Abbey, in the company of Ex Cathedra conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore, was an encounter with a particular kind of British ubiquity. The music of Hubert Parry, Herbert Howells, Judith Weir and James MacMillan were brought together in an evening focussing on “A New Jerusalem”, four composers whose work, in the church and concert hall respectively, has become (for good or ill) highly pervasive. In the case of Parry and Howells, hearing them beyond the context of liturgical function revealed above all how much their approach to choral writing persists both in the legacy of 20th century church music and beyond as well as the ongoing choral evensong tradition, which for many years has sounded less like a modern expression of faith than a nostalgic clinging to values (both musical and theological) held by an ever-decreasing minority. Hearing them side by side made for an illuminating comparison. What Elgar was to the orchestra, Parry was to the choir, his music never solely about the text or topic at hand but with omnipresent obeisance to a sense of grandiose occasion looming over everything. (Put another way, what Elgar was to pomp, Parry was to circumstance.) Read more

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Proms 2015: Colin Matthews – String Quartet No. 5 (European Première) & James MacMillan – Symphony No. 4 (World Première)

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At the start of last week, the Proms saw important premières from two veterans of new music, Colin Matthews and James MacMillan. Both composers have a demonstrative relationship with music from earlier times, producing work that often seeks to find a comfortable marriage of old and new, looking back and forth simultaneously. The titles of both pieces bear some witness to this too, ostensibly bald, functional titles yet which carry centuries’ worth of connotation and legacy. Read more

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Proms 2012: James MacMillan – Credo (World Première)

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Wednesday’s Prom concert featured a new work from James MacMillan, a setting of the Creed from the liturgy of the Mass. Composers rarely set the Creed to music, not, i think, simply because it’s such a long and convoluted text (although it is, and this may also in part account for the dearth of contemporary Te Deums). What makes the Creed so different from the rest of the liturgy is its shift of emphasis away from God, focussing instead on oneself. “I believe” are its opening words, and all that follows embeds that personal belief into each of the facets that form the firmament of the Christian faith. So maybe its deep, direct expression of something so personal as faith may cause both composers and audiences to shy away from it. That’s a concert hall thesis; within the context of the actual liturgy, the same situation arguably arises as much from the fact it’s best to allow these words to come from the congregation rather than just the choir. But this Creed is a concert work; and that fact alone is perhaps cause for some celebration. Read more

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James MacMillan – St John Passion

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The next piece in my Lent series i’m including more as a curiosity than as a work i deeply admire. James MacMillan‘s St John Passion was composed in 2007 and premièred in April the following year. MacMillan structures the work in 10 movements, grouped into two parts; the first (movements I to IV) documents Christ’s arrest and trial, the second (movements V to X) his Crucifixion and death. Two movements break from the unfolding narrative; VIII is a setting of the Reproaches and the final movement is an instrumental epilogue.

Taken as a whole the work is, to be frank, downright weird — which is perhaps reason enough to find it at least interesting. Whatever else may be true of this piece, though, insincerity is not one of its faults; indeed, i’m not sure i’ve ever heard a composer try harder to produce something that compellingly lives up both to their own and others’ expectations, in addition to the not inconsiderable weight of tradition (and religious tradition at that). But in striving to create something utterly worthy, MacMillan ends up aggrandising every word of the text, resulting in an eccentric kind of melodrama, the protagonists of which too often become a clutch of musical ham actors (imagine Brendan Fraser attempting to convince in a film by Cecil B. DeMille). Everybody struts about, shouting and striking wildly exaggerated postures; the ‘baddies’ of the piece are obvious to the point of absurdity—Pilate could almost be twirling his moustache while sporting a maniacal grin. It’s exacerbated by MacMillan’s musical language, which on this occasion frequently sounds like a Walton/Turnage mashup with some John Stainer moments thrown in: “The Crucifixion of the Three Screaming Belshazzars” – or something like that. The attempts at grotesquery, liberally distributed throughout the work, are largely restricted to copious amounts of glissandi and wildly dissonant, ludicrously LOUD tutti eruptions, which can only be effective for so long, their returns diminishing rapidly; by the sixth movement (‘Christ’s garments divided’), the repeated downward glissandi in the choir seem irritating and awkwardly comic. Read more

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James MacMillan – Domine non secundum peccata nostra (World Première)

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Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and throughout the next seven weeks, among other things, i’ll be featuring a selection of pieces suitable to the season. To begin, a recording of the world première of James MacMillan‘s anthem Domine non secundum peccata nostra, given by the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. Directed by Andrew Nethsingha, the performance took place on Ash Wednesday last year, and also includes a solo violin, played here by Margaret Faultless. The piece is structured as a simple rondo, in which the refrain—heard three times—focusses on the essence of the text, words adapted from verse 10 of Psalm 103:

Domine, non secundum peccata nostra quae fecimus nos, neque secundum iniquitates nostras retribuas nobis.
(“Lord, do not repay us according to our sins or our iniquities.”)

MacMillan keeps the refrain relatively subdued, the words emerging from extended melismas over simple harmonies (the use of harmony throughout is simple). The violin nags away at the periphery, picking at notes, arpeggiating them, finally becoming a complementary melodic entity in its own right. There are two episodes, and both contrast strongly with the refrain, projected with much greater force. Read more

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James MacMillan – Seraph (World Première)

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James MacMillan‘s most recent composition, Seraph, a concertino for trumpet and strings, was premièred by Alison Balsom and the Scottish Ensemble a little over a month ago, at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Its bold, militaristic start immediately puts Shostakovich in mind, but this is supplemented with an obvious reference to Joseph Haydn. MacMillan takes the last movement of Haydn’s concerto as his own starting point, using a misquote of its opening phrase as a gesture upon which much of his first movement is centered. While the tone remains boistrous throughout, there are two softer episodes, welcome asides in what is otherwise a surprisingly workaday brand of music that, on more than a few occasions, crosses the line into pastiche. The Haydn quotation isn’t the only Classical affiliation; the presence of three movements—fast-slow-fast—is an obvious connection, and even clearer is the structure of this opening Allegro, replete with recapitulation. Read more

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