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James MacMillan | Photo: Hansvander Woerd James MacMillan | Photo: Hansvander Woerd

Celebrating Sir James MacMillan at 60

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This year revered Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan turns 60. To celebrate, the International Festival hosts five concerts to highlight his life and work including the world premiere of his Fifth Symphony, a special concert in Greyfriars Kirk and a performance of Symphony No 2 conducted by the man himself.

Combining a thrilling visceral impact, a profound sense of spiritual contemplation, and a bracing immediacy, the music of Ayrshire-born Sir James MacMillan has garnered enormous acclaim — and immense popularity — right across the globe.

The International Festival has a long history of celebrating MacMillan’s compelling music. He was a featured composer at the 1993 International Festival, his first opera Inés de Castro premiered in 1996, and his Since it was the day of preparation... was unveiled in 2012, among many other performances. This year, the International Festival marks MacMillan’s 60th birthday with a special series of concerts that place his rich, vibrant music firmly in the spotlight.

These five performances, held in venues across the city, bring together a wealth of first performances — a major world premiere, as well as UK and Scottish premieres — and performers who have long collaborated with MacMillan.

From his intense choral work Quickening, a celebration of the miracle of creation, to his tongue-in-cheek organ concerto A Scotch Bestiary, a series of mischievous musical portraits both grotesque and uproarious, these concerts celebrate the full range of MacMillan’s astonishingly broad output. They culminate in the world premiere of his Symphony No 5: 'Le grand Inconnu', a meditation on the mystery of the Holy Spirit, and a major new choral symphony for our times.

We spoke to Sir James about this year's celebrations at the International Festival, relearning his own scores and how music is more important now than ever...

Click here to watch a captioned version of the video.

Now join us as we look back over his musical life. 

1959  James MacMillan is born. He first discovers his love of music when he picks up a plastic recorder at school and decides he wants to become a composer. 

1977  A teenage MacMillan attends the International Festival to see Thea Musgrave's Mary, Queen of Scots and a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. He later attends the University of Edinburgh to study composition under the leadership of distinguished British composer Kenneth Leighton.

1990  MacMillan's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie is premiered by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms and is an instant success, placing MacMillan properly in the spotlight for the first time.

1993  MacMillan is a featured composer in the 1993 International Festival programme as his Epiclesis, a concerto for trumpet, receives its first performance.

1996  Inés de Castro, MacMillan's first opera, is premiered by Scottish Opera as part of the 1996 International Festival.

1997  The piano trio Fourteen Little Pictures premieres in London.

1999  Quickening and Symphony No 2 both receive their first performances.

2004  Quickening is performed at the 2004 International Festival with MacMillan's own daughter singing in the children's chorus. A Scotch Bestiary also receives its premiere as the organ concerto is performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. MacMillan says of the piece 'I was motivated by the great American cartoon makers who represented human characters in animal form. A Scotch Bestiary is inspired by human archetypes and personalities encountered in Scottish life over the years.'

2012  Since it was the day of preparation... is unveiled as part of the 2012 International Festival and Woman of the Apocalypse, written for conductor Marin Alsop, premieres in California.

2018  Commissioned by 14-18 NOW and the London Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the Armistice, MacMillan's All the Hills and Vales Along premieres at his own Cumnock Tryst festival.

2019  The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, eminent chorus The Sixteen and youth chorus Genesis Sixteen combine forces under long-time MacMillan collaborator Harry Christophers for the world premiere of the composer’s Symphony No 5: 'Le grand Inconnu', at the 2019 International Festival.

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