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Musical World

James MacMillan

  • Composer
  • Conductor


James MacMillan press reviews

James MacMillan conducts the Netherlands Radio Kamer Philharmonie in a recording of his Visitatio Sepulchri and Sun Dogs on BIS
“The composer’s intense conducting adds greatly to the impact of an extended piece in three scenes... Altogether a fine coupling of two superb works, a credit to the performers.”
Gramophone, August 2010

World premiere of MacMillan’s Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra, Vadim Repin and Valery Gergiev
“This action-packed crowd-pleaser is essentially a compendium of song and dance digging deep into the primitivism of the distant past to unlock memories much closer to the present. There are dizzying, spinning reels, dirges and sentimental plaints with the violin often hauntingly evoking the "vocal" melismas of Celtic folk singers. One moment the fiddler is urging the entire string section to shake a leg, the next he's in blissful repose with piano and piping piccolo lending a tearful consonance. Wild and wacky, dark and subversive, even brutal – what isn't in the mix? The audience adored it.”
The Independent, May 2010

“The Concerto is written in memory of MacMillan's late mother, and at its centre is a reminiscence of childhood in which Repin picks out the shapes of Celtic folk songs that eventually coalesce into a heart-on-sleeve melody of striking elegance. The opening movement examines the violin's role in dance bands as Repin plays furious Scottish reels in succession. The darker finale juxtaposes swirling violin figurations with both plainchant and a German nursery rhyme declaimed by the orchestral players. Staggeringly difficult, it was a tour de force for Repin, and thrillingly done by Gergiev and the LSO.”
The Guardian, May 2010

“As soloist Vadim Repin and conductor Valery Gergiev whirled us tumultuously through its hyperactive songs and dances, there was so much I wanted to savour, to hear again…

On one level it's a brilliant tour de force which does everything a virtuoso could wish, combining some of the fast, furious, fiddling reels complete with signature drum the bodhrán which are in MacMillan's musical DNA with the necessary chance to let the violin sing - and how, in Repin's dazzling, pitch-perfect performance."
The Arts Desk, May 2010

“Plundering the fiddle tradition of his native Scotland, MacMillan infuses the first movement with jig-like energy and the second with a ruminative-rhapsodic-romantic tune, played in unison by soloist and orchestra before being carried skywards by piccolo (Sharon Williams) in an emotionally stirring vein…the orchestra has plenty of good music to play.

But it’s the solo part that inspires MacMillan to his most original touches…The violin negotiates a series of fiendishly fast and agitated progressions up the scale, creating waves of suppressed tension that are eased by interludes in a yearning vein. The final cadenza is in the finest classical tradition, testing the soloist’s virtuosity and musicianship to the extreme.”
Financial Times, May 2010

MacMillan conducts the Florida Orchestra
“The Florida Orchestra has done an excellent thing by bringing in Scottish composer James MacMillan to conduct not only his own music but also that of Ralph Vaughan Williams, an earlier British master with whom he clearly has a kinship.

MacMillan's Interludes opened the concert with a compact display of his gift for orchestral color, especially in the percussion writing. The way that moments of shimmering delicacy and precision were punctuated by mighty blasts in the brass and percussion reminded me of Shostakovich. The orchestra gave an alert performance for the composer, whose conducting style is clear and energetic.

Part of MacMillan's mission in coming to Florida was to spread the gospel of British music, and he succeeded splendidly on that score with Vaughan Williams' Symphony No.4... Amid the tumult there was a lush loveliness to the music under MacMillan's baton, as in the surprisingly gentle dissonance of the opening theme and the dreamy flute solo that ended the second movement. The frenetic finish left the audience in stunned silence before breaking into applause.”
St. Petersburg Times, Florida, November 2009

MacMillan conducts the Baltimore Symphony
“MacMillan brought obvious authority to the podium and drew some lively playing from the BSO strings in the concerto… The edgy, unpredictable qualities in MacMillan's music helped to reiterate just how edgy and unpredictable Beethoven could be, even in such an early symphony as this one. Every sudden dynamic shift in the latter recalled to mind all the surprises in the former... Beethoven's Second Symphony is particularly rich in potent ideas, as MacMillan illustrated in remarks to the audience before going on to produce a thoughtful, invigorating performance. He offered much more than mere traffic control, emphasizing the work's sinewy power and paying attention to the subtleties that give it so much character. The orchestra jumped into the action with impressive force.”
The Baltimore Sun, April 2008

“For audiences who think they hate modern music, there's nothing to fear here… this music is wild stuff, but it's good, vigorous music and deserves to be performed by major ensembles... A scintillating reading of Beethoven's delightful but infrequently performed Symphony No. 2… The players executed Mr. MacMillan's sunny concept of the work with infectious enthusiasm, particularly in the quirky scherzo and the rousing finale.”
The Washington Times, April 2008

MacMillan conducts the BBC Philharmonic
“A towering performance by the BBC Philharmonic under the composer James MacMillan. He is proving a conductor of daunting ability.”
The Sunday Times, May 2003
“…an orchestral concert delivered with supreme confidence by the BBC Philharmonic under James MacMillan…given a conductor as attuned as MacMillan to large-scale drama as well as to immediacy of impact, and given an orchestra for whom no challenge is too much, the sheer élan of the writing was again hard to resist.”
The Daily Telegraph, October 2004

"It was refreshing to find the BBC Philharmonic and Royal Northern College of Music collaborating on a small festival celebrating the music of the 54-year-old composer Poul Ruders. James Macmillan conducted the BBC Philharmonic, the fleet strings alternately fidgeting restlessly and drawing long, sweeping brush-strokes in music with defined, sculptural textures. Pointed woodwind added such colour that you hardly noticed the absence of percussion."
The Independent, February 2006

“Scotch Bestiary is full of a black vitality which always threatens to explode into pure chaos. ... It’s all brought off with tremendous zest by Wayne Marshall and the BBC Philharmonic under the composer’s direction; but they’re just as much at home in the contemplative, painfully affectionate parts of the Concerto.”
BBC Music Magazine, Proms 2006

“MacMillan himself conducted the BBC Philharmonic for Saturday’s Pickaquoy Centre performance of his own The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. Sixteen years on from the performances that established his name, the composer produced a seamless, swift account of the score.”
The Herald, June 2006

“Composers who turn to conducting aren’t always successful, but James MacMillan is emerging as a strong, assured interpreter of his own music, and the Chandos recordings do him full justice.”
BBC Music Magazine, September 2003

The BBC Symphony Orchestra MacMillan weekend at The Barbican, 2005
“…the great virtue of these marvellous BBC composer weekends [is that] they allow us to roam around a composer’s inner world, and see how it changes over time, and how the elements acquire weight and subtlety. Of course that’s only valuable if the composer in question really has conjured a world worth getting to know, and this weekend made it clear MacMillan is one of the few British composers who have.”
The Daily Telegraph, January 2005

"I wish I knew what James MacMillan eats for breakfast. With 120 compositions already under his belt, the flying Scot is writing music with as much fervour and ingenuity as anyone on the planet. As was amply demonstrated by this BBC weekend devoted to his music, his passion and energy seem inexhaustible... he is, paradoxically, the most powerful voice in British music today - by a mile. Though fused from a thousand diverse sacred and secular influences, his pieces are instantly recognisable, intellectually coherent, fizzing with ideas, gloriously coloured, and without a whiff of pretension or obfuscation. And who knows how his imagination will ripen, darken or deepen in the years ahead. After all, he is only 45."
The Times, January 2005

"The BBC Symphony Chorus crackled with vigour and crisp enunciation: a tribute to their talent and drilling, and MacMillan's early gift for the immediate, dramatic and emotional."
The Times, January 2005

"...[MacMillan's] music has an immense heat and appetite, seizing hold of other musical references and bending them to it's will."
The Daily Telegraph, January 2005

“James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados, combining poems concerning political repression in Latin America with liturgical texts in Latin, is surely among the best products of his first flood of inspiration. It is characteristically raw and derivative in places, but also occasionally ravishing, and full of integrity.”
The Independent, January 2006