James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful living composers and is also internationally active as a conductor. His musical language is flooded with influences from his Scottish heritage, Catholic faith, social conscience and close connection with Celtic folk music, blended with influences from Far Eastern, Scandinavian and Eastern European music.
MacMillan first became internationally recognised after the extraordinary success of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the BBC Proms in 1990. His prolific output has since been performed and broadcast around the world, placing him in the front rank of today’s composers. His major works include percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which has received more than 400 performances, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, large scale choral-orchestral work Quickening, and three symphonies. Recent major works include his St John Passion, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony and Rundfunkchor Berlin; his Violin Concerto, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Concertgebouw Zaterdag Matinee and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris; and most recently his Piano Concerto No.3, Mysteries of Light, which received its world premiere by the Minnesota Orchestra and Jean-Yves Thibaudet conducted by Osmo Vänskä in 2011.
MacMillan’s music has been the focus of many major festivals and residencies over the years, such as the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2009/10 season ‘Artist Portrait’ which, alongside the world premiere of his Violin Concerto, included MacMillan conducting the orchestra in the City of London Festival, a revival of the St John Passion with Sir Colin Davis, performances of his trumpet concerto Epiclesis and an education project based on his work for ensemble and orchestra Into the Ferment.
MacMillan enjoys a flourishing career as conductor of his own music alongside a range of contemporary and standard repertoire, praised for the composer’s insight he brings to each score. He is Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Kamer Filharmonie and was Composer/Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic from 2000-2009; he has conducted orchestras such as the Baltimore Symphony, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Radio Symphony, Danish Radio Symphony, Gothenburg Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic and NHK Symphony Orchestra among others.
MacMillan is Composer in Residence at the 2012 Grafenegg Festival, the co-commissioners of his new choral-orchestral piece Credo. While at Grafenegg MacMillan conducts this work alongside the music of Britten and Vaughan Williams with the Tonkuenstler Orchestra, rehearses and performs Into the Ferment with young musicians and directs “Ink Still Wet”, a week-long composer/conductor workshop. His works will be performed throughout the Festival. MacMillan continues his term as Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Kamer Filharmonie, which this season includes conducting a Britten centenary concert as part of the Concertgebouw’s Zaterdag Matinee series. Also during the 2012/13 season, MacMillan’s music is the focus of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Spektrum Artist series, where he also conducts, and other highlights include conducting engagements with the Luxembourg Philharmonic and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
James MacMillan has directed many of his own works on disc for Chandos, BIS and BMG, most recently a disc featuring MacMillan’s violin concerto A Deep but Dazzling Darkness and percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel with Colin Currie and the Netherlands Radio Kamer Filharmonie. Other recent releases include an LSO Live disc of his St John Passion with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis, a live recording of his opera The Sacrifice from its premiere performance by the Welsh National Opera in 2007 on Chandos, and a Grammy-nominated disc of Sun-Dogs and Visitatio Sepulchri with the Netherlands Radio Kamer Filharmonie and Choir on BIS.
MacMillan was awarded a CBE in January 2004.
James MacMillan is represented by Intermusica. www.intermusica.co.uk/macmillan.
The works of James MacMillan are published by Boosey & Hawkes. For a composing biography, please visit the Boosey & Hawkes website.
2012/13 season / 581 words. Not to be altered without permission. Please destroy all previous biographical material.
Sample conducting programmes
Key repertoire to place alongside MacMillan’s music includes: Britten, Stravinsky, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Arvo Part, Kancheli, Messiaen, Prokofiev, Sibelius.
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, March 2013
MENDELSSOHN The Hebrides Overture
WAGNER ARR. VLIEGER Siegfried Idyll
MACMILLAN Oboe Concerto
Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, October 2012
MAXWELL DAVIES Scottish Renaissance Dances
MACMILLAN The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
MAXWELL DAVIES An Orkney Wedding, with sunrise
MACMILLAN Veni, Veni, Emmanuel
(percussion concerto, with Colin Currie)
Grafenegg Festival, Tonkuenstler Orchestra, September 2012
BRITTEN Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a
MACMILLAN The Sacrifice: Three Interludes
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphony No.4
NHK Symphony Orchestra, June 2012
MACMILLAN Violin Concerto
MASAKI NORIKURA New Work
ATSUTADA OTAKA Au-delá du Temps
Wien Modern Festival, Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, November 2011
BIRTWHISTLE An Imaginary Landscape
HOWARD Calculus of the Nervous System
CERHA Like a Tragicomedy
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, May 2011
ARNOLD Tam O'Shanter Overture
STENHAMMAR Piano Concerto No.2
MACMILLAN Symphony No.3 Silence
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, March 2011
MACMILLAN The Sacrifice: Three Interludes
WALTON Viola Concerto
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Thomas Tallis Fantasia
MACMILLAN The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Danish National Symphony Orchestra, March 2010,
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestras, April 2011
MACMILLAN St John Passion
London Symphony Orchestra, July 2009
MENDELSSOHN The Hebrides Overture
MACMILLAN A Meditation on Iona
MACMILLAN From Ayrshire
TCHAIKOVSKY Souvenir d'un lieu cher
Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonie, January 2009
BRITTEN Prelude & Fugue Op.29
SHOSTAKOVICH Cello Concerto No.1
MACMILLAN Seven Last Words from the Cross
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, December 2007
BRITTEN Violin Concerto
MACMILLAN Symphony No.1
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Percussion Concerto for Colin Currie (from 2014/15)
Percussion and orchestra
Viola Concerto for Lawrence Power (from 2013/14)
Viola and orchestra
St Luke Passion (from 2013/14)
Chorus and orchestra
Credo (to be premiered in August 2012)
Chorus and orchestra
Seraph (2010) 15’
Solo trumpet and symphony orchestra
Oboe Concerto (2009-10) 23’
Solo oboe and symphony orchestra
Violin Concerto (2009) 25’
Solo violin and symphony orchestra
Piano Concerto No.3 (2007-08) 25’
Solo piano and symphony orchestra
St John Passion (2007) 87’
Solo baritone, chorus and orchestra
The Sacrifice: Three Interludes (2006) 15’
From Ayrshire (2005) 8’
Solo violin and symphony orchestra
Symphony No.3 ‘Silence’ (2002) 37’
A Deep but Dazzling Darkness (2002) 22’
Solo violin and ensemble (20 musicians), tape
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (2000) 20’
Chorus with organ or symphony orchestra
The World’s Ransoming (1996) 20’
Cor anglais concerto - solo cor anglais and symphony orchestra
Seven Last Words from the Cross (1992) 46’
Cantata for choir and strings
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (1992) 28’
Percussion concerto - solo percussion and chamber / symphony orchestra
The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990) 26’
Tryst (1989) 30’
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Today, the Grafenegg audience encountered one of the most successful Scottish composers of the present day in James MacMillan, as the closing concert of the Festival traditionally belongs to the Composer in Residence. Britten’s ‘Sea Interludes’ from the opera ‘Peter Grimes’ kicked off a very sophisticated Summer’s evening. Having presented the stormy tonality of his English colleague, MacMillan went on to pour forth an expression of his own faith.
A cornerstone of the creative work of MacMillan, born in 1959, is his genuine Catholic faith, and so the Austrian premiere of his ‘Credo’ at the Wolkenturm was the audible fulfilment of one of his dearest wishes. This statement of belief reached out to the audience in a shimmering sound-world, as the Arnold Schoenberg Choir moved effectively between the tonalities of Bruckner’s Harmonielehre, primordial Gregorian modes and even oriental motifs.
In Ralph Vaughan William’s Fourth Symphony (yet another British compatriot; three cheers for the well thought-out programme!), the Tonkünstler Orchestra of Lower Austria showed courageous self-abandon in their performance of a masterpiece that is barely known in this country. The strings strode through the Andante with impressive energy, almost in preparation for the stirring finale. And with such thorough grounding in the music of Great Britain, the Tonkünstler Orchestra gave a wonderful performance of the interludes from MacMillan’s opera ‘The Sacrifice’. These intermezzi were collected together in 2007, shortly after the premiere at Welsh National Opera of this opera about the civil war. The message of the necessity of peaceful cooperation was apparent in these distinctively phrased scenes, despite their brevity. The audience, many of whom were young people, responded with great enthusiasm.
Heuer begegnete dem Grafenegger Publikum mit James MacMillan einer der erfolgreichsten schottischen Tonschöpfer der Gegenwart, das Abschlusskonzert beim Musikfestival gehörte traditionell dem Composer in Residence. Was mit Brittens "Sea Interludes" aus der Oper "Peter Grimes" als anspruchsvolles Spätsommerkonzert begann, entpuppte sich auch als solches. Gerade präsentierte MacMillan vom Dirigentenpult aus die stürmische Tonalität des englischen Kollegen, schon erging er sich in der eigenen Gläubigkeitt.
Ein Eckpfeiler für das Schaffen des 1959 geborenen Künstlers ist sein gelebter Katholizismus, mit der österreichischen Erstaufführung seines "Credo" im Wolkenturm erfüllte er sich hörbar einen Herzenswunsch. Dieses Glaubensbekenntnis begegnete den Hörern in schillernder Tonalität, der Arnold Schoenberg Chor bewegte sich auf effektvollen Wegen von Bruckners angewandter Harmonielehre bis zu urwüchsig gregorianischen und sogar erfüllt orientalischen Motiven.
In Ralph Vaughan Williams Vierter Symphonie (noch ein britischer Landsmann, ein Hoch auf das durchdachte Konzept!) bewies das Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich Mut zur Hingabe an hierzulande weniger bekannte Meisterwerke. Eindrucksvoll energisch schritten die Streicherklänge durch das Andante, quasi als Vorbereitung auf das aufwühlende Finale. Dergestalt offen für die Musik der Insel, gelang den Tonkünstlern auch MacMillans "Zwischenspiele aus ‚The Sacrifice’". Diese Intermezzi entstanden 2007 kurz nach der Uraufführung seiner Bürgerkriegsoper an der walisischen Oper. Die Notwendigkeit eines friedvollen Miteinanders wurde trotz der Kürze der deutlich artikulierten Szenen offenbar. Das Publikum (viel Jugend kam) war begeistert.
Wiener Zeitung, September 2012
“It was left to James MacMillan in his Clemency … to give some reassurance that opera is, indeed, still possible in our century. His tale of a modern-day Abraham and Sarah, with their three mysterious Visitors, remains as cogent and moving as ever.”
Times, September 2012
Recording: Second volume of James MacMillan conducting own works with Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic & Netherlands Radio Choir released on Challenge Classics
“Followers of James MacMillan’s choral music may recognise O as an adaptation of his earlier O Oriens, one of the Strathclyde Motets. In this fine new album – volume two of a multi-disc series in which the composer directs his own music with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic and Choir – we hear the original vocal motet, modified for three treble voices, trumpet and strings. The result is exquisite, MacMillan shrouding the fundamentally tonal language in a halo of strings and floating solo trumpet. That same shimmering instrumental writing sets a magical opening atmosphere to his 1999 Magnificat, coupled here with the equally devotional, somewhat exotic Nunc Dimittis. The inclusion of one purely symphonic work, the emotionally-loaded Tryst, gives balance to a very listenable, very moving disc.”
The Scotsman, five stars, April 2013
The Sixteen perform James MacMillan on Choral Pilgrimage Tour
“It was the MacMillan selection that overwhelmed. Two Advent pieces — Dominus dabit benignitatem, with ecstatic sopranos soaring over dark Samuel Barber-like harmonies; and O Radiant Dawn, with allusions back to Tallis and spine-shivering alto suspensions — seemed charged with evangelical ecstasy. Even more impressive was Miserere, his setting of Psalm 51, which harks back to Allegri’s 17th-century setting yet explores diverse modern timbres and harmonies.”
Times, April 2013
“MacMillan's Miserere, composed last year for Harry Christophers and the Sixteen, is a wonderfully sustained, beautifully paced and varied setting, with its own moment of catharsis when it dissolves into purest E major for the final stanzas.”
Guardian, March 2013
James MacMillan conducts the Netherlands Radio Kamer Filharmonie and Vadim Repin in the Dutch premiere of his Violin Concerto
“[MacMillan] delivers a powerful and highly impressive concerto...[he] led the Radio Kamer Filharmonie in a really strong performance, and the orchestra played with great conviction and sensitivity.”
Bach Track, April 2012
James MacMillan conducts the Guildhall Symphony at the Barbican
“[In Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet suite] the various romantic, tragic and expressive characters shone through, with MacMillan calmly in control”
Bach Track, March 2012
EMI releases James MacMillan’s Seraph, performed by Alison Balsom
“The highlight is James MacMillan's "Seraph", with the assertive opening brio giving way to a more reflective Adagio dialogue between trumpet and violin, before emerging refreshed for the animated closing movement.”
Independent, January 2012
“[Seraph] deftly combines trumpet and strings in music that ranges from the incisiveness of its first movement, via the ‘seraphic’ plaintiveness of its lightly textured Adagio to the robust interplay of the finale. Balsom takes its not inconsiderable demands in her stride, with the Scottish Ensemble unstinting in its support.”
Gramophone, January 2012
“The MacMillan is a lovely work (particularly the second movement)”
Herald Scotland, January 2012
“More successful is James MacMillan’s witty Seraph, which nicely exploits the trumpet’s comedic potential alongside Balsom’s ability to spin a cantabile line. It’s surely destined to become a repertoire work.”
The Arts Desk, March 2012
Jean-Yves Thibaudet premieres James MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No. 3, The Mysteries of Light, with the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänska
“This exhilarating, readily accessible new work...should encourage other blazing performances. Given virtuoso pianists like Thibaudet, conductors like Vanska, and orchestras like the Minnesota, the piece should find a niche in the piano-orchestra repertoire – an alternative, perhaps, to the familiar Rachmaninoff and Ravel masterpieces.”
American Record Guide, July/August 2011
“The work, all 25 minutes of it, is a wild ride, overflowing with color and incident -- turbulent, incantatory and, at moments, luminous. MacMillan's keyboard writing calls for a dramatist and a poet, and it has both in Jean-Yves Thibaudet, whose playing spans the extremes of forcefulness and delicacy.”
Star Tribune, April 2011
“The dazzling and perplexing piece is the highlight of this weekend's concerts featuring pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The virtuosic 25-minute work could not have gotten a better premiere. There's no doubt that MacMillan knows his way around an orchestra. His score is a cascade of instrumental coloration. There were times, for instance, when the performance shimmered in a tingling shower of ethereal voices, though the more common sensation was shattering, overlapping sonic clashing.
The concerto also challenges the listener to accept two compositionally distinct voices simultaneously — the solo piano and the orchestra... The piano's voice is often eerily doubled by chimes, vibraphone or other instruments, creating a sonority that is at times tingling. In all, it's a masterfully challenging piece for performers and listeners.”
St Paul Pioneer Press, April 2011
MacMillan’s new chamber opera Clemency premieres at the Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House
“Less is more: in James MacMillan's music, every note counts. And never more so than in Clemency, the Scottish composer's brand-new chamber opera, which packs questions powerful, emotional, philosophical and religious into just 45 minutes. With his regular librettist Michael Symmons Roberts and the director Katie Mitchell, MacMillan has created a terrifically intense, focused and inspired musical work on a thought-provoking parable, updated to the present day.
The characterisation is unfailing: Sarah, sung by the marvellous Janis Kelly, has soaring, palpitating and plunging lines as her emotions are buffeted by fear and elation. Abraham, the full-toned Grant Doyle, is straightforward, humble but tenacious. The "triplets" are heard first in close harmony, almost as if with one voice at three pitches: an otherworldly sound, performed with frightening power by Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall and Andrew Tortise.
But there's another character: the orchestra – the strings of the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Clark Rundell. They play as if possessed in instrumental episodes that seem to argue the points, amplify the emotions and ratchet up the tension. These passages structure the score just as the three-part picture-frame structures the staging.”
Independent, five stars, May 2011
James MacMillan conducts his St John Passion with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
“James MacMillan’s intensely moving and dramatic setting of the St John Passion brings the whole raw, pathetic cruelty of Christ’s execution into stark reality.
Conducted by the composer, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus was joined by the 14-voice Colla Voce Singers and the baritone Christopher Maltman, for whom the work was originally written. Maltman’s raw energy, singing Christus, was dramatic and physical. His is a fine voice, with earthy power and edginess. The power of Tu es Petrus or the aching beauty of the Crucifixus etiam pro nobis – with decorative solos from orchestra principals – were moments which will be treasured in the memory.”
Liverpool Daily Post, April 2011
“MacMillan, who conducted last night’s concert at the Philharmonic Hall, has created a complex jigsaw which uses recognisable forms of liturgical chant, rousing choral interjections and celestial and dramatic orchestration, albeit within a 21st century musical framework.
The whole was underpinned by an adrenalin-filled orchestration, performed with calmness and absolute concentration by the Phil, and which included everything from a maelstrom of brass and percussion, to mystical chimes and honeyed strings.”
Liverpool Echo, April 2011
James MacMillan conducts his song cycle Raising Sparks in a concert of his own music at Carnegie Hall
“MacMillan conducted music that was ceaselessly inventive, evocative and penetrating. But the focal point was the Italian mezzo-soprano Christina Zavalloni, whose dramatic delivery and delirious presence turned a compelling composition into a theatrical tour de force.”
New York Times, March 2011
MacMillan’s Violin Concerto is performed at Carnegie Hall by Vadim Repin and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Charles Dutoit
“The concerto, a 25-minute work in three movements, adheres loosely to historical conventions of form: a crackling opening movement (“Dance”) is followed with a more lyrical section (“Song”) and a finale filled with exuberant display (“Song and Dance”). The solo part’s torrential flurries and sweetly spun melodies are custom fitted to a virtuoso like Mr. Repin, to whom the work is dedicated. Mr MacMillan’s estimable mastery of orchestral timbre and effect is evident throughout.
Composed in memory of Mr MacMillan’s mother, who died in 2008, the concerto derives its considerable emotive impact from graceful and grotesque elements juxtaposed with a dreamy illogic. A bubbly Scottish reel breaks out at the first movement’s climax. In the second, the winsome solo lines flutter over elegiac oboe, guttural brass and dreamy, tuned percussion; a tender passage for piccolo and piano conjures an Irish folk song.
Audience response was rousing and sustained. Mr. Dutoit provided a sympathetic context for Mr MacMillan’s instrumental brilliance and heart-on-sleeve emotionalism.”
New York Times, March 2011
“The Violin Concerto is a big piece, with bold gestures and virtuosic flights. It can be as showy as a concerto from the 19th-century, and Repin confronted its challenges enthusiastically in a performance characterized by shining tone, precise intonation and impeccable technique...
The Violin Concerto makes for exhilarating and absorbing listening.”
Classical Review, March 2011
James MacMillan conducts the Britten Sinfonia and Nick Daniel in the world premiere performances of his Oboe Concerto
“Wonderfully virtuosic, superbly crafted for both solo instrument and orchestra and with enough enigmas and sardonic outbursts to keep posterity guessing, James MacMillan’s new Oboe Concerto is a corker. ... the Oboe Concerto starts with deceptive exuberance: after a syncopated minimalist riff in the violas, the oboe is off on a wild dance that manages to veer from exotic arabesques to a lush, even romantic lyricism without breaking stride.”
Times, October 2010
“Nicholas Daniel then performed MacMillan's new oboe concerto, written for this renowned soloist who is also a player in the Britten Sinfonia. In the opening "Marcato e ritmico", Daniel burst forth as if detonated, with powerful chromatic flurries and a propulsive amalgam of martial and Gaelic energy, strings trilling, glissando-ing and arpeggio-ing beneath him in multiple layers. Parallel worlds of soloist and ensemble at once meet and spin off on their own, not in combat but in dialogue.
In the slow movement, the wide, almost placid and murky sostenuto writing was like a dark lake out of which the oboe rose, keening and plaintive, as if a lone water bird. There is no programme to this piece, so such a suggestion should not be taken literally, only as an attempt to convey the relationship between soloist and ensemble. The finale, harsh, joky and elegiac, had the virtuosic Daniel forcing all his power and might through that tiny reed fit to burst. MacMillan's concerto offers a fiery addition to the solo oboe's confined repertoire.”
Observer, October 2010
James MacMillan conducts the Netherlands Radio Kamer Philharmonie in a recording of his Visitatio Sepulchri and Sun Dogs on BIS
“The composer’s intense conducting adds greatly to the impact of an extended piece in three scenes... Altogether a fine coupling of two superb works, a credit to the performers.”
Gramophone, August 2010
World premiere of MacMillan’s Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra, Vadim Repin and Valery Gergiev
“This action-packed crowd-pleaser is essentially a compendium of song and dance digging deep into the primitivism of the distant past to unlock memories much closer to the present. There are dizzying, spinning reels, dirges and sentimental plaints with the violin often hauntingly evoking the "vocal" melismas of Celtic folk singers. One moment the fiddler is urging the entire string section to shake a leg, the next he's in blissful repose with piano and piping piccolo lending a tearful consonance. Wild and wacky, dark and subversive, even brutal – what isn't in the mix? The audience adored it.”
Independent, May 2010
“The Concerto is written in memory of MacMillan's late mother, and at its centre is a reminiscence of childhood in which Repin picks out the shapes of Celtic folk songs that eventually coalesce into a heart-on-sleeve melody of striking elegance. The opening movement examines the violin's role in dance bands as Repin plays furious Scottish reels in succession. The darker finale juxtaposes swirling violin figurations with both plainchant and a German nursery rhyme declaimed by the orchestral players. Staggeringly difficult, it was a tour de force for Repin, and thrillingly done by Gergiev and the LSO.”
Guardian, May 2010
“As soloist Vadim Repin and conductor Valery Gergiev whirled us tumultuously through its hyperactive songs and dances, there was so much I wanted to savour, to hear again…
On one level it's a brilliant tour de force which does everything a virtuoso could wish, combining some of the fast, furious, fiddling reels complete with signature drum the bodhrán which are in MacMillan's musical DNA with the necessary chance to let the violin sing - and how, in Repin's dazzling, pitch-perfect performance.“
The Arts Desk, May 2010
“Plundering the fiddle tradition of his native Scotland, MacMillan infuses the first movement with jig-like energy and the second with a ruminative-rhapsodic-romantic tune, played in unison by soloist and orchestra before being carried skywards by piccolo (Sharon Williams) in an emotionally stirring vein…the orchestra has plenty of good music to play.
But it’s the solo part that inspires MacMillan to his most original touches…The violin negotiates a series of fiendishly fast and agitated progressions up the scale, creating waves of suppressed tension that are eased by interludes in a yearning vein. The final cadenza is in the finest classical tradition, testing the soloist’s virtuosity and musicianship to the extreme.”
Financial Times, May 2010
MacMillan conducts the Florida Orchestra
“The Florida Orchestra has done an excellent thing by bringing in Scottish composer James MacMillan to conduct not only his own music but also that of Ralph Vaughan Williams, an earlier British master with whom he clearly has a kinship.
MacMillan's Interludes opened the concert with a compact display of his gift for orchestral color, especially in the percussion writing. The way that moments of shimmering delicacy and precision were punctuated by mighty blasts in the brass and percussion reminded me of Shostakovich. The orchestra gave an alert performance for the composer, whose conducting style is clear and energetic.
Part of MacMillan's mission in coming to Florida was to spread the gospel of British music, and he succeeded splendidly on that score with Vaughan Williams' Symphony No.4... Amid the tumult there was a lush loveliness to the music under MacMillan's baton, as in the surprisingly gentle dissonance of the opening theme and the dreamy flute solo that ended the second movement. The frenetic finish left the audience in stunned silence before breaking into applause.”
St. Petersburg Times, November 2009
MacMillan conducts the Baltimore Symphony
“MacMillan brought obvious authority to the podium and drew some lively playing from the BSO strings in the concerto… The edgy, unpredictable qualities in MacMillan's music helped to reiterate just how edgy and unpredictable Beethoven could be, even in such an early symphony as this one. Every sudden dynamic shift in the latter recalled to mind all the surprises in the former... Beethoven's Second Symphony is particularly rich in potent ideas, as MacMillan illustrated in remarks to the audience before going on to produce a thoughtful, invigorating performance. He offered much more than mere traffic control, emphasizing the work's sinewy power and paying attention to the subtleties that give it so much character. The orchestra jumped into the action with impressive force.”
Baltimore Sun, April 2008
“For audiences who think they hate modern music, there's nothing to fear here… this music is wild stuff, but it's good, vigorous music and deserves to be performed by major ensembles... A scintillating reading of Beethoven's delightful but infrequently performed Symphony No. 2… The players executed Mr. MacMillan's sunny concept of the work with infectious enthusiasm, particularly in the quirky scherzo and the rousing finale.”
Washington Times, April 2008
MacMillan conducts the BBC Philharmonic
“A towering performance by the BBC Philharmonic under the composer James MacMillan. He is proving a conductor of daunting ability.”
Sunday Times, May 2003
“…an orchestral concert delivered with supreme confidence by the BBC Philharmonic under James MacMillan…given a conductor as attuned as MacMillan to large-scale drama as well as to immediacy of impact, and given an orchestra for whom no challenge is too much, the sheer élan of the writing was again hard to resist.”
Daily Telegraph, October 2004
"It was refreshing to find the BBC Philharmonic and Royal Northern College of Music collaborating on a small festival celebrating the music of the 54-year-old composer Poul Ruders. James Macmillan conducted the BBC Philharmonic, the fleet strings alternately fidgeting restlessly and drawing long, sweeping brush-strokes in music with defined, sculptural textures. Pointed woodwind added such colour that you hardly noticed the absence of percussion."
Independent, February 2006
“Scotch Bestiary is full of a black vitality which always threatens to explode into pure chaos. ... It’s all brought off with tremendous zest by Wayne Marshall and the BBC Philharmonic under the composer’s direction; but they’re just as much at home in the contemplative, painfully affectionate parts of the Concerto.”
BBC Music Magazine, Proms 2006
“MacMillan himself conducted the BBC Philharmonic for Saturday’s Pickaquoy Centre performance of his own The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. Sixteen years on from the performances that established his name, the composer produced a seamless, swift account of the score.”
The Herald, June 2006
“Composers who turn to conducting aren’t always successful, but James MacMillan is emerging as a strong, assured interpreter of his own music, and the Chandos recordings do him full justice.”
BBC Music Magazine, September 2003
The BBC Symphony Orchestra MacMillan weekend at the Barbican
“…the great virtue of these marvellous BBC composer weekends [is that] they allow us to roam around a composer’s inner world, and see how it changes over time, and how the elements acquire weight and subtlety. Of course that’s only valuable if the composer in question really has conjured a world worth getting to know, and this weekend made it clear MacMillan is one of the few British composers who have.”
Daily Telegraph, January 2005
"I wish I knew what James MacMillan eats for breakfast. With 120 compositions already under his belt, the flying Scot is writing music with as much fervour and ingenuity as anyone on the planet. As was amply demonstrated by this BBC weekend devoted to his music, his passion and energy seem inexhaustible... he is, paradoxically, the most powerful voice in British music today - by a mile. Though fused from a thousand diverse sacred and secular influences, his pieces are instantly recognisable, intellectually coherent, fizzing with ideas, gloriously coloured, and without a whiff of pretension or obfuscation. And who knows how his imagination will ripen, darken or deepen in the years ahead. After all, he is only 45."
Times, January 2005
"The BBC Symphony Chorus crackled with vigour and crisp enunciation: a tribute to their talent and drilling, and MacMillan's early gift for the immediate, dramatic and emotional."
Times, January 2005
"...[MacMillan's] music has an immense heat and appetite, seizing hold of other musical references and bending them to it's will."
Daily Telegraph, January 2005
“James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados, combining poems concerning political repression in Latin America with liturgical texts in Latin, is surely among the best products of his first flood of inspiration. It is characteristically raw and derivative in places, but also occasionally ravishing, and full of integrity.”
Independent, January 2006