In Conversation with James MacMillan: Part three of a three-part series

James MacMillan is a classical composer and conductor known for his orchestral, operatic and choral works. In May 2018 MacMillan met with Phillip A. Cooke to discuss the work on his biography of the composer, The Music of James MacMillan, published by Boydell Press in 2019.

The following is a condensed and edited transcript of the interview.

PAC: I’m interested to know about you as a conductor, because there isn’t a lot written about that. You’ve conducted from day one but when did you see yourself as being a conductor who actually went out into the world and conducted other people’s music?

JM: Well, I had never thought of it at all, then there was a quick change in things in the 1990s. The catalyst was Sinopoli who was going to conduct The Confession of Isobel Gowdie with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1991, and he hadn’t prepared it, so I got this call from David Welton (the manager at the time) asking if I could do it — this was the week of the concert! I had never been in the Royal Festival Hall, I had never stood in front of a professional orchestra, so I was just thrown into it. It gave me a taste for it, and gradually other things emerged and eventually Intermusica came along and asked me if I would consider coming to them as a composer-conductor and they would develop that side. I don’t know when I joined Intermusica, but I guess it would be the mid to late-1990s, I then started to risk my arm with different repertoire. I did a kind of apprenticeship, as it were, in the late-1990s and early-2000s they would send me off to orchestras in France and Portugal — I wanted to do it, it was a way of making money as I well, I suppose, but I was able to practice on them doing repertoire: Poulenc, Britten, Haydn, Mozart, everything! It became clear that I needed to do a bit of remedial work and to gain confidence out of the public glare.

PAC: Having done so much conducting, you don’t mind relinquishing your music to someone else to conduct?

JM: No, not at all! It’s better that way to be honest, but I do love getting out there and conducting.

PAC: The composer/conductor position with the BBC Philharmonic in the early 2000s, was that an important part of your career?

JM: It was, it was a very busy time. I didn’t write very much for them actually, I think I wrote The Birds of Rhiannon, the Third Symphony (though that was right at the end) and the Scotch Bestiary — so I guess there was a number of pieces. I was doing a lot of new music with them at the time, we did composer focusses, we brought a lot of young composers on and performed their music. I got to conduct HK Gruber, Scandinavian composers, Aho (some of the hardest music I have ever conducted), Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies. I was able to do a lot of new music during those 10 years and the orchestra enjoyed it and I think they enjoyed me being in charge. Sometimes a composer can advocate on behalf of his colleagues.

PAC: You had done large-scale choral works before, but was it a natural progression that you would come to a traditional oratorio topic eventually and do something like a Passion?

JM: I think so. It had been hovering in my mind for years and I had been edging round about the subject in different ways, but not a straightforward passion setting until Colin Davis came up with the idea of writing a big piece. We talked around a number of different subjects (he didn’t like any of the original ideas — contemporary poetry he didn’t like — he was quite a traditional man) and eventually he said ‘what about one of the Passion settings’.

PAC: Did the St John Passion feel in anyway some sort of watershed moment, or a bookmark on a part of your career?

JM: I’ve never felt that, not at the time anyway. Maybe looking back you can see certain developments where you have reached a certain point and then different things began, but it is very hard for me to tell at the time. I just felt it came off the back of The Sacrifice and is absolutely saturated with opera. At the dress rehearsal day of The Sacrifice in Cardiff I was in my dressing room at the Millennium Centre finishing off the St John Passion — it was all that was in my head at that stage, some of the music has crossed from one to the other.

PAC: Did any of the previous experience with Ines de Castro shape the composition, pre-­composition or any of the experiences of The Sacrifice?

JM: Yes, though the process was different. With Ines I was left to my own devices a lot, it really took to the second production for me to sort out some of the problems — some word setting, some of the scoring, some of the structural divides — I had to cut a lot (I had to cut a big scene for example) and to just tighten it up. Musically and dramatically it was better second time round. I didn’t have chance to know that in advance, so having had the experience of what had and what hadn’t been good about Ines the first time I then approached The Sacrifice in a different way. The choice of librettist was a result of that, John Clifford wasn’t a poet as such, so there is a sort of prosaic, conversational tone to the piece, which is one way of doing it, but I thought ‘maybe there is other ways of doing it’, so that’s why I approached Michael. Then there was a long four-way conversation between Michael, myself, Katie Mitchell (who was the producer and acted as a sort of dramaturg in the early days) and Anthony Freud, he’s now big in the opera world in America, he loved Ines, but I think he knew what the flaws were and he was trying to help us sort that out. So, in that sense it was a more fruitful working process, it took a very long time as there were more people involved in it, but strangely that is the reason I’m not going to do it again — too much of a faff! Maybe I’ve just moved on or changed.

PAC: How do you feel about that particular piece now, ten years after the first performance?

JM: I’m pleased with it. I would like to do it again, actually, and to revisit it in some way — I wouldn’t change it as much, but it needs another performance — there is a lot in there that doesn’t get out. The live performance is OK on CD but there is all this knocking about and shouting, it just gets in the way.

Finish your conversation with James MacMillan… catch-up on part one here and part two here.

The Edinburgh International Festival hosts five concerts in August 2019, celebrating James MacMillan’s sixtieth year, including a performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Woman of the Apocalypse and A Scotch Bestiary, conducted by Joana Carneiro, and the first performance of Sir James MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony by The Sixteen and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Harry Christophers. Both events will take place on Saturday 17 August 2019, 5.00pm.

Follow latest news on other events at #JMacMillan60 or

Phillip A. Cooke is a Composer and Senior Lecturer and Head of Music at the University of Aberdeen. He has previously co-edited The Music of Herbert Howells for Boydell.

The Music of James MacMillan
by Phillip A. Cooke
Hardback / 9781783273706 / £22.50 or $29.96

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