James MacMillan

James MacMillan – Symphony No. 5 ‘Le grand Inconnu’ (World Première)

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Symphonies – one minute you think that no-one’s really writing them anymore, and then suddenly three of them turn up in quick succession. Of course, in reality the apparent lack of them may well be more to do with the fact that composers today are reluctant to title a work ‘Symphony’ (embodying as it does such an accumulation of historical connotation and baggage) in favour of something more personal and snappy, and less to do with a reality in which music that could be described as ‘symphonic’ is becoming a thing of the past. Either way, in the last few months three works bearing the name ‘Symphony’ have received their first performances, which i’ll be exploring in my next few articles.

James MacMillan‘s Symphony No. 5, premièred in August, takes as its theme the religious notion of the Holy Spirit. To this end, MacMillan structures the work in three movements each of which is devoted to one of its mythical physical attributes: wind (or breath), water and fire. The subtitle of the work, Le grand Inconnu (the great unknown), is an associated term, borrowed from the French because MacMillan could not find an equivalent in English. It’s a choral symphony, involving both a chamber choir and a chorus, but instead of directly setting a text MacMillan has taken words from the Bible, John of the Cross, and the 9th century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus to form a composite text mingling English, Latin, Hebrew and Greek. Read more

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Proms 2017: the premières – how you voted

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i want to say thank you to all of you who took time to vote in this year’s 5:4 Proms polls. More of you than ever expressed your views about this year’s premières: a total of 1,096 votes were cast, an increase of 17% from last year.

However, the distribution of those votes was highly unbalanced. Obviously, some pieces are going to be more appealing than others, but the extent of the disparity was much greater than in previous years. For example, the works by Tom Coult and Harrison Birtwistle both elicited 100+ votes, while others barely managed twenty. That’s in part due to the difference in time – the poll for each successive première is available for less long than its predecessors, and this is the main reason why i keep the polls open for a fortnight after the Proms have finished – yet this clearly isn’t the whole story. Roderick Williams’ Là ci darem la mano was the third première, well over two months ago, but still only managed 31 votes. Whether that’s to do with the fact that Williams is less well-known/-regarded as a composer, or that it took place in an afternoon chamber concert rather than an evening event, or that the work was vocal and/or in a concert otherwise filled with Monteverdi, who knows? In some other cases the relative lack of votes seemed surprising. Mark-Anthony Turnage usually stirs up a fair amount of interest, yet his large-scale song cycle Hibiki mustered a mere 32 votes. Has his star finally waned? Whatever the reasons, the range of the disparity is considerable and worth noting.

For the last couple of years, the number-crunching formulae i’ve used on the polls data has taken the number of votes into account so as not to skew the results, and this year i’ve also included the work’s duration as a factor: if two pieces are equally liked or disliked, the longer of the pieces will prevail (this is already an important factor in the crunching that goes into producing my end of the year best album lists). And because if a job’s worth doing, etc. etc., i’ve used the actual duration of the piece –  i.e. from the start of the music to the first clap at the end – rather than the advertised duration. Apropos: for the most part the actual and advertised durations were pretty similar – i.e. ± a minute or so – the one exception being Gerald Barry’s Canada, which was a full four minutes fewer than threatened promised. Anyway, that’s enough preambular wafflestats, here are the results of how you all voted. Read more

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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 2016: 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 focusing 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, focusing 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 – focuses 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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James MacMillan – Oboe Concerto (World Première)

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On 15 October, James MacMillan‘s Oboe Concerto received its first performance at Birmingham’s Town Hall, conducted by MacMillan himself. Taking the solo rôle was Nicholas Daniel, a performer who has brought numerous new oboe works to the world, usually at the more mainstream end of the contemporary spectrum. Structurally, at least, MacMillan’s work is entirely familiar, falling into the traditional three movements, even adhering to the hackneyed fast-slow-fast convention.

The first movement is an exercise in rapidity, Daniel barely given any moments to breathe amidst the endless scales and arpeggios. After a few minutes, having continued in like manner without let up, just as one begins to wonder if the movement’s actually going somewhere, MacMillan’s sense of timing reveals itself; the busy texture surrounding the oboe gradually disappears (returning to the movement’s opening gestures), and a brief, soft, distant string chorale begins, its solemnity a curious combination of Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams. All of which makes precisely zero impression on the oboe; on the contrary, it throws itself into a dithyrambic frenzy, its gestures coalescing on a nervously energetic trill. It comes as something of a shock to find the opening movement ended so soon (barely five minutes’ duration), just as it was starting to pique one’s interest. Read more

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Proms 2010: James MacMillan – The Sacrifice – Three Interludes (London Première)

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The Proms is now well into its final straight, and the week began with the London première of James MacMillan‘s The Sacrifice – Three Interludes. As the title suggests, MacMillan has extracted the music from his 2007 opera, The Sacrifice.

First of the three is “The Parting”, which opens, disarmingly, like a John Williams-esque bit of film music, continuing in this vein for several minutes. Eventually it coalesces into something deeper; a curious music, driven by the strings, taking some strange harmonic twists (akin to one of Shostakovich’s slow movements), before being abruptly snatched by the brass and percussion. This throws a bit of light and air into the mix, and leads to some brief excitement in the woodwinds, though not for long, finally descending back to the mood from which it sprang. The interlude concludes with the greyest of passages (now Wagner springs to mind), muted, melancholic, ashen.

A “Passacaglia” follows, and if the opening moments suggest Britten or Lutosławski, such notions are quickly dispelled by the boistrous melody that chirps up, setting the tone for where things are going. The music originally accompanied the scene of a marriage feast, and there’s a fair amount of merriment in MacMillan’s material, although equally, the ominous presence of the ground bass, coupled with the nasal quality of much of the music, makes for an ambivalent mood (MacMillan’s programme note bluntly states, “It will end in violence”). Read more

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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): James MacMillan, Simon Beattie, Jonathan Dove, John McCabe – The last and greatest herald (World Première) & Peter Wishart

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A new church year is upon us, and with it comes the first choral broadcast for the season of Advent. Yesterday, Radio 3 broadcast the Advent Carol Service live from the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, the choir of which has a deservedly high reputation. They’re also innovative; about 6 weeks ago, they became the first choir of this kind to make their services available as weekly webcasts; for more information go here.

The service featured several interesting contemporary pieces. James MacMillan‘s A New Song is one of his most emphatically melodious anthems; its blend of high solemnity yielding to radiance is just right for Advent. Simon Beattie‘s Advent Calendar is broadcast here for the first time; it’s an interesting piece, not entirely successful, as it lacks a clear sense of direction, but with some nicely-judged poignant harmonic writing. Jonathan Dove‘s I am the day is a simple, delicate confection with a curious patchwork quality, weaving fragments that each sound familiar yet become something new; i like it. Read more

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James MacMillan – String Quartet No. 3 (World Première)

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Here’s a recording of James MacMillan‘s most recent work, the String Quartet No. 3, premièred by the Takacs Quartet on 21 May, at the QEH in London. i don’t know either of MacMillan’s previous two quartets, but this new addition is a fairly ambitious work. MacMillan speaks in his preliminary discussion (illustrated with examples by the Takacs) of the melodic, cantabile quality of the material, and this is highly evident throughout, especially in the lyrical first movement, the principal theme of which has a distinct Jewish flavour. Strange, disjunct gestures begin the second movement, ominous and disquieted. From them, melodic fragments appear, many of them cast from a similarly disquieted mould: the viola embarks on a short restless journey, buzzing like an angry bee; later all four combine to sound like a heavily wheezing concertina. On a couple of occasions, dance figurations try to assert themselves, only to be thrust brusquely back into the maelstrom and promptly dissipated; the movement ends much as it began, one of MacMillan’s most fascinatingly strange creations. The lyricism returns for the final movement, which is the most conservative and familiar of the three. It is all melody, led powerfully by the first violin, charting a trajectory into the most achingly high regions of its E string, its three companions forming a supportive trio at its base. At the summit, it repeats plaintively, and everything turns harmonic, fading into transparency. Read more

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James MacMillan – Symphony No. 3 ‘Silence’ (Scottish Première)

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Here’s the Scottish première of James MacMillan’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Silence’, broadcast last Tuesday. Don’t be taken in by that subtitle; this piece does the exact opposite of “what it says on the tin”. MacMillan is more concerned with the perception – within the human experience of tragedy and cruelty – of God gone ‘silent’, inspired by the writings of Shusaku Endo and encapsulated in Christ’s cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. Far from being silent, the symphony is, in fact, a work brimming with unrest, of Mahlerian scope and with suitably collossal tutti passages (fittingly, the remainder of the concert consisted of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, the two works sitting well beside each other). Read more

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Silent Song: James MacMillan – Cantos Sagrados

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If Good Friday is emotionally draining, Holy Saturday feels emotionally empty, numbed and spent. i never quite know what to do with myself on this awful day; everything, somehow, feels wrong, trivial or stupid. i imagine i’m not alone in this; perhaps it’s this feeling that explains the general liturgical silence draped over the day (the Dutch very appropiately call today ‘Stille Zaterdag’, ‘Silent Saturday’). One of the few composers to have confronted this kind of void, and – more importantly – the human motivations that cause it, is James MacMillan. Read more

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