After making a Sacrifice, he's back with a Passion
By Tim Cornwell
From Scotsman.com - Mon 19 Jun 2006
It seems a milder, more mellow James MacMillan, sipping coffee in a favourite Glasgow restaurant. A couple of months ago, the composer who once made his name for denouncing sectarianism as "Scotland's shame" put down his pen on his first opera in ten years. He is now embarking on another project that he sees as one of the biggest of his life, his new setting of the St John Passion.
James MacMillan is one of Scotland's biggest musical exports; he is in constant demand from orchestras worldwide to conduct his own and others' work. In general, though, the Scottish press have found in MacMillan a composer with a knack for making news, be it demanding an end to sectarianism or condemning the Scottish Executive for "cultural vandalism". Clearly in a mood not to make non-musical headlines, he is also worrying that the Scottish public don't know what he's up to - or even that he still lives in Glasgow.
This week the St Magnus Festival in Orkney is making a feature of his work. It comes after a major retrospective at the Barbican last year. Tonight he conducts the Scottish Ensemble and Cappella Nova in a performance of his piece Seven Last Words from the Cross.
MacMillan is back in St Magnus for the first time since 1991, when he was a young composer-in-residence. He has admired its founder, composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, since he was a teenager. "I have always regarded him as a mentor. He gives a signal to a younger generation of composers that composers have a role, or could have a role, in societies like this."
MacMillan's last full-scale opera was Inés de Castro, which premiered with Scottish Opera at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1996. The new work for Welsh National Opera is The Sacrifice, based on The Mabinogion, a Welsh collection of myths. The libretto is being written by the award-winning Catholic poet Michael Symmons Roberts, MacMillan's frequent collaborator, and will tell a new story, MacMillan says, about tribal conflict and two lovers, with echoes of Romeo and Juliet. Asked why this major work is showing with Welsh, not Scottish, Opera, MacMillan's response is simple: "They asked for it." That said, when it's staged in 2007 there will be a strong Scottish presence - soprano Lisa Milne is to take the leading role.
The Sacrifice took two years to write. "It's a huge change in your life, the making of an opera," MacMillan says.
After finishing Inés de Castro, he thought "never again", but the new offer was too attractive. "It seems to me there's an opera once in a decade. Time's running out for me in a sense."
One of those who worked on Inés de Castro was Alex Reedijk, the New Zealand Opera chief who has returned to Scottish Opera as its general director. It was at the height of Scottish Opera's troubles that MacMillan became patron of the Friends of Scottish Opera. He is still rankled by their "mistreatment". "The eyes and ears of the cultural world are on Scotland just now and the Scottish Executive didn't handle the issue very well. People are watching them very closely but they have an opportunity to redeem themselves by learning from the mistakes and noticing things like Scottish Opera are vitally important aspects of Scottish life.
MacMillan has recently been accepting many conducting slots overseas but is irritated by any suggestion that he has turned his back on Scottish musical life. One newspaper survey of top Scots actually said he lived in London, not Jordanhill. "Some of my most important pieces have been written for Scottish orchestras," he says. "They are still performing quite a lot of my music. It's in my interest to see what life there is beyond Scotland. I've nothing but goodwill for Scottish orchestras, but I suppose we all want to test ourselves with difficult worlds, different countries."
He is patron of St Mary's Music School in Edinburgh, has a close relationship with Cappella Nova, and a close connection to the Catholic chaplaincy at the University of Strathclyde, writing pieces for the university chamber choir. He is about to settle seriously into a commission for Cappella Nova, and respond to a recent invitation from the Scottish Ensemble. He has set his sights on creating a body of work for amateur choirs. "I want to bring about a body of work that is much more suitable for amateur choirs and drops the difficulty level a little bit."
The goal is to give classical music a wider context. He also wants to develop more work for small ensembles and choral groups. "To do that with Scottish-based musicians is very important."
With Sacrifice finished, the major project facing MacMillan now is a Passion, a huge new setting of the Gospel of St John. "This is the work I have been waiting to write for years, maybe decades," he says. There are three parts commissioned for orchestras in three different countries with a world-renowned conductor. "I have lived with the Passion as a boy. The Bach passion is a fantastic model. It has been obsessing my thoughts and plans over the last few months but it is well under way now."
MacMillan doesn't believe in the "mollycoddling" of religion by taking out the "messy stuff". His idea of sacred music is that there has to be an idea of Christ and the cruxificion at the heart of it. "There's the tragedy as well as the joys of life, and the crucifixion is at the heart of that symbolism. Artists through the age have responded to the suffering as well as the joy of their fellow men."