Q&A with James MacMillan

by Kayla Moore


As this year’s May Festival Creative Partner, you’re conducting your own piece, Seven Last Words from the Cross, and curating the free Sounds of the City program. What are the challenges and opportunities in devising two differently formatted programs?

Finding a context to program my own music is always an interesting task. My Seven Last Words is an intense and tragic work focusing on the death of Jesus. So, in contrast, I have chosen a piece of joyous music for chorus, orchestra and soloist to form the first half of the concert—another 20th century work by a fellow Catholic composer, Poulenc’s wonderfully quirky setting of the Gloria. It has been a sheer delight seeing the Sounds of the City program take shape, as the various choral ensembles have all responded enthusiastically to the challenge of choosing a piece of mine that would suit each of their very different characteristics and strengths. I’m so looking forward to hearing the assorted groups, especially those who have chosen to sing the Scots language works!

You wrote Seven Last Words in 1993 and will be conducting it this year. How does this piece speak differently to you 25 years after writing it? How do audiences react to it now?

Seven Last Words was a significant work for me. I was in my early 30s when I wrote it. It was the first time I had tackled the topic of the Crucifixion narrative in my music—a topic I was to return to in different ways in the years ahead—and it allowed me to combine the different sound worlds of choir and string ensemble together. Performing one’s earlier work is a bit like finding old letters! You can see that you are the same person (essentially) but realize, rather wistfully perhaps, just how much you have changed in the passing years. The work is now performed all over the world, and I am moved that it speaks to people in different places and with different world views.

What are you especially excited about for this May Festival, outside of your own programs?

The May Festival looks like a delightful collection of inspiring programs. I’m especially excited about hearing Mark Simpson’s astonishing The Immortal. Mark is one of the most gifted young composers to have emerged recently in the UK, and this work in particular is a notable and highly acclaimed addition to the repertoire. It is a significant coup for the Festival to be mounting the U.S. premiere of this brilliant piece.