Bach of the net for Scotland's most successful composer James MacMillan

There aren’t many giants of the contemporary classical music scene who have composed a piece for Glasgow Celtic’s Neil Lennon, writes Cathy Desmond.

James MacMillan arrives in Ireland next weekend to headline New Music Dublin, a festival dedicated to work by living composers.

He is one of Britain’s most prolific and successful composers.

He grew up in a mining community in East Ayrshire in Scotland. His father was a carpenter, and his grandfather a coal miner who took him to brass band practice and gave him his first cornet.

When he first picked up a recorder at school, he says a light went on and he knew that he wanted to write his own music.

He draws inspiration from both the spiritual and the secular: many of his works draw on his Catholic faith, while his passion for Glasgow Celtic FC sparked some of his more unusual works.

The secret to his prodigious output? “I write most days, when I’m at home. I’m old fashioned in that I use pencil, pen and paper. I live in the quiet North Ayrshire countryside which is very conducive to work.”

On communicating sacred music in a secular context, he says: “Sacred music springs from the world of

liturgy but has found its natural home in the concert hall.

"Composers of sacred music mostly write for the secular context, but some of us also write for the liturgy too. A different mindset is needed for that, in that you are creating music for other people’s prayer.

"There are lots of reasons why people relate to sacred music in our secular world now — lovers of classical music talk of it being the most sacred of the arts, whether they are conventionally religious or not.”

MacMillan will conduct the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and Concert Orchestra in his Credo at Monumental, the opening concert next Thursday (March 1) at NCH which features Goliath, by Deirdre Gribbin.

On Friday he leadsChamber Choir Ireland and the Irish Chamber Orchestra in the Irish premiere of his Stabat Mater at St Ann’sChurch, Dawson St.

If you could meet one great composer from the past, who would you choose? Richard Wagner. I came under the spell of his music when I was very young, and I’ve never really outlived that teenage obsession.

Three pieces of classical music everyone should hear: Tallis, Spem In Alium, written c1570: An incredible motet in 40 parts, possibly one of the most miraculous pieces of early English music.

Bach, St Matthew Passion: one of the greatest artistic and spiritual achievements by any human being, it is transformative music that points to our shared humanity as well as godwards.

Wagner, Tristan and Isolde: One of the most revolutionary works of the late 19th century which had a huge impact on the modernism of the 20th century.

It is full of unresolved tension and strange beauty.

The composers working today that excite you? Gerald Barry, a great Irish composer. He is unique — music that is eccentric, unusual and funny. Wolfgang Rihm — Germany’s greatest living composer Steve Reich — a famous, iconic American minimalist.

Favourite auditorium: The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Outside of classical music, what interests you?

I’ve lost contact with popular music, I’m afraid. Nevertheless I’m keeping an eye and ear open for possibilities for my festival in Scotland, the Cumnock Tryst. I’ve been speaking to C Duncan who was nominated for the Mercury Award recently, and Anna Meredith, as well as listening closely to what’s happening in ‘world music’ — ie Anoushka Shankar.

The biggest thrill of your career: Establishing the Cumnock Tryst in the little town in Ayrshire where I grew up. It’s a thrill putting something back in to the community and bringing wonderful musicians there.

Most unusual inspiration for a work: The Berserking, which is my first piano concerto was inspired by Celtic Football Club! I also wrote a little piano piece for their one-time captain and manager, Neil Lennon, For Neil.

New Music Dublin runs March 1-4 at the National Concert Hall and other venues

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