As the RSNO celebrates its 125th Anniversary, we are celebrating many musicians who have played an important part in the orchestra’s life. On 17th-19th March in Glasgow/Edinburgh/Aberdeen we hear a joint commission (with the RLPO and Bournemouth SO) by Sir James MacMillan, a composer who has frequently featured in our concerts since the 1990s.
The first MacMillan piece I played with the orchestra was “The Berserking” for piano and orchestra. I confess to having more than a passing interest in MacMillan’s music at this point: as a composition student at Manchester University I had missed studying with him by one year… Talk about bad luck! What immediately grabbed me about his music was its passion, the wide range of colour he draws from his ensembles and the rhythmic vitality. There have been many emotional journeys for me in this music, not least our performances of “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie” on tour in Sweden in 2004.
As I’ve delved further into MacMillan’s music, I’ve increasingly been drawn from his orchestral to his choral music, which for me is where he is at his most engaging. I remember hearing the beautiful “Strathclyde Motets” at the Edinburgh Festival two years ago interspersed with music from the Renaissance, and my YouTube discovery (I did buy the CD afterwards!) of “Tu es Petrus” for choir, organ and brass written for the Pope’s visit to Westminster Cathedral in 2010. Go and listen to it – it’s mind-blowing.
MacMillan isn’t just a man for the big occasion, though. He is equally at home writing for amateur groups: “The Galloway Mass” for congregational singing springs to mind and it has been announced recently that he is writing a piece for the GSA choir to sing at the Mackintosh Building’s reopening. He is a passionate advocate for music education and in 2014 he founded “The Cumnock Tryst”, a four-day music festival based in the town where he grew up. MacMillan himself acknowledges that if it weren’t for the musical experiences he had there as a boy, he may not have become a musician.
Twenty years after my first encounter with MacMillan’s music, I still wish so much that I’d coincided with him at Manchester University. I’m sure I’d have learnt much about composition, but more than that, as a small-town girl myself, I share a belief with him that music-making of a high standard is for everyone, everywhere.