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Sir James MacMillan’s 60th chorale celebration at St Dominic’s Priory

23 May, 2019 — By Michael White

Sir James MacMillan. Photo: Hansvander Woerd

IT’S hard to believe that the composer Sir James MacMillan is about to turn 60, not least because it seems like yesterday that I first met him – up in Scotland in the 1980s where he came across as tough and radical, wearing an earring with the street-cred chic of somebody from a Gitanes advertisement. And young. As were we all.

Now he’s a knight. A prominent, outspoken Scottish Catholic who sticks his neck out by supporting Christian values and the union with England. But above all a composer of established international celebrity – performed by the world’s greatest orchestras and choirs, who are lined up to do so with a vengeance for this birthday year.

He tells me he’s unfazed by his propulsion into the establishment – “it gives me a platform to argue the case for music education” – and his attitude to being 60 is simply that it’s “a useful way of gathering together performances with a sort of festival feel”.

Which is how it will be this Saturday when he travels down to London for a spotlit appearance at St Dominic’s Priory, Belsize Park – the imposing Catholic shrine on the 24 bus route.

He’s coming to conduct a choir, the Elysian Singers of London, in an evening of his own music. And it will be an event to rank along­side all the others stacking up for the big birthday, including the premiere of his 5th Symphony at the Edinburgh Festival and the publication of his autobiography in the summer.

Most of his music of the past three decades has been written to some kind of spiritual purpose – even the ostensibly abstract scores, which tend to come with illustrative names like Veni, Veni Emmanuel, his 1992 percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie which has notched up more than 500 performances to date.

That’s a rare achievement for contemporary music and a mark of the direct impact that MacMillan’s work carries alongside its mystical agenda. For a serious, high-art composer, he reaches an unusually wide audience – helped, he thinks, by the way “we live in times when people are fascinated by religion, and the most baffling aspects of Christian belief seem to be the most appealing”.

Writing with that mindset puts him in something like the same category as Bach, who considered everything he did was (as he marked his scores) “for the greater glory of God”.

But when it comes to the thorny subjects of inspiration and guidance, MacMillan is cautious: “I believe there’s an umbilical connection between music and the divine, but does God direct my hand when I put the notes on the page? I wouldn’t claim that. Nor can I look back over my output and see a guided, seamless progression.

“But one of the most remarkable things I’ve witnessed over time has been the emergence of superb professional choirs that have transformed the musical landscape and the lives of composers. Forty years ago, few serious composers thought much about choral writing: it was instrumental music that generated modernism. But that’s changed. And choral singing packs out halls.”

Expect no less at 7.30pm on Saturday, May 25, at St Dominic’s Priory (The Rosary Shrine), ­South­ampton Road NW5 4LB. Concert £15, cons £10; £25 inc wine reception + special interview with Sir James MacMillan. From www.eventbrite.co.uk

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