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The passion of the composer

Stewart Oksenhorn

As both a devout Catholic and a composer, James MacMillan would have a difficult time in not commingling the religious and the musical. Indeed, many of the titles of the Scottish composers’ works hint at MacMillan’s Catholic beliefs: “Seven Last Words from the Cross” for chorus and string orchestra; “On the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin” for choir and organ; and “The Confession of Isabel Gowdie,” the tone poem that launched him to prominence when it was performed at the London Proms in 1990. MacMillan, however, sees a broader purpose to composing than to convey his own religious beliefs, or even to pay tribute to his God. To the 45-year-old, music has the unique ability to transcend just about everything and unite and elevate humankind. His music, then, is, in a way, beyond even Catholicism. It is a purely spiritual pursuit, intended to put any listener in touch with the holy.”Like many people, regardless of what religion they are, I find music is the most spiritual of the arts,” said MacMillan, who is spending his first summer as a composer-in-residence at the Aspen Music Festival and School. “People who love music, especially music where you need to listen to it actively, people who love that speak in spiritual terms about the impact, how their lives are changed or transformed. They use spiritual, even quasi-sacramental language, to discuss that deep impact. Music and spirituality are clearly entwined.”It’s in recognition of that truism that I approach writing music. Because all music holds that potential.”MacMillan concedes – though not without a moment’s reflection – that his particular faith has “probably” influenced his music. But rather than feeling connected to others who have pursued whatever art can be labeled Catholic, he sees himself as among the composers and artists who have been motivated by a sense of the holy. In this, he says he is far from alone.”In the 20th century, with the rise of unbelief, it’s been in the arts and music where the serious artists have held the candle for the sacred,” said MacMillan. “Most of the great composers of the 20th century – Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Schnittke, Benjamin Britten, John Taverner, Arvo Pärt – a whole range of them have recognized the sacred as present in the art, which needs to be pursued. I see myself as part of the mainstream of modernist composers, from Wagner on, who have had a curiosity about the sacred.”The music, MacMillan believes, is not restricted in its appeal to only those of faith. For this, he has not just faith, but solid proof. His “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,” a percussion concerto written for Evelyn Glennie, has been performed a staggering 300-or-so times since its 1992 premiere by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. “The Confession of Isabel Gowdie” and “Tryst,” a single-movement orchestral piece to be performed next week at California’s Cabrillo Music Festival with conductor Marin Alsop, have gotten enough attention to please and surprise MacMillan. On Friday, July 23, MacMillan’s Symphony No. 2 will be performed by the Aspen Chamber Symphony and conductor Hugh Wolff. Earlier this season, MacMillan’s “… as others see us,” based on the poetry of his countryman, Robert Burns, and the brass piece “Adam’s Rib,” were performed in Aspen. Clearly, the audience for MacMillan’s music is not made up entirely of Catholics, or even the religious.”Catholicism at its best is a universal understanding of the world,” he said. “I think my Catholicism allows me to address universal themes and questions. It doesn’t cut me off from the rest of the world.”The meaning of musicIn fact, it was the way music could reach out to the world that drew MacMillan toward a life of composing. Raised just south of Glasgow in Ayershire, MacMillan descended from a musical family. His grandfather, a coal miner and brass-band player and choral singer, in particular, was influential. “Common to the coal-mining industry, the brass-band culture was important to him,” said MacMillan, whose first instruments were cornet and trumpet. “And he was a singer in the Catholic Church. That percolated down to me.”But as soon as MacMillan was exposed to classical music, he sensed the vast possibilities of music. In Beethoven’s work, he heard a compassion for all men, and a desire to lift the spirit not just of kings, but of commoners.”I was obsessed and devoted to finding out about these amazing musical figures,” said MacMillan, who is joined on his first trip to Aspen by his wife, a part-time lawyer who devotes herself largely to charitable causes and their three teenage children. “Beethoven was a big one for me, his passions and commitments. He’s living proof to me that music is not just an abstract form, apart from human existence. The way he responded to the social upheaval of his time was a great influence to me that music could reflect everything it means to be human. “‘Fidelio’ and the Ninth Symphony showed a preference for the oppressed. That showed that music could have an impact on society and on one’s fellow human beings. It reflected a shared experience of human life.”MacMillan doesn’t believe that classical music has lost that power. The din of voices decrying the music’s diminution has grown to practically overpower the music itself these days. But MacMillan sees positive developments coinciding with the bad news.”I’m not convinced yet that classical music is on its last legs. That argument is an incomplete one,” said MacMillan, who lives in Glasgow and is composer/conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. “I sense people are seeing the writing on the wall and see the necessity to do a lot of groundwork for the future. That means you can’t rely on the older audiences; you can’t rely on the idea that people are familiar with the music.”MacMillan believes that concert hall must survive not merely for the sake of the music itself, but for what music can do for the soul, for humanity. Lift the cultural focus from Jessica Simpson and boy bands to Johann Sebastian Bach, he argues, and an elevation of human dialogue will follow.”Our culture is so dominated by the visual and the verbal, and the music has become a mystery in our time,” he said. “It’s bigger than an orchestral problems. Music has been dislocated from the core culture, and we need to bring music back to the core. Because it is a civilizing thing for our culture, an educational aspect for our intellectual abilities. You think of the main figures of philosophy and literature – Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Goethe, Nietzsche – they all dealt with music.”The Aspen Chamber Symphony, conducted by Hugh Wolff and with violinist Robert McDuffie, will perform Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 2, Ravel’s Tzigane and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major on Friday, July 23, in addition to MacMillan’s Symphony No. 2.MacMillan said his second symphony is shorter and smaller than his other two symphonies. It is also more introspective and melancholy, thanks in large part to the original inspiration for the work.The second symphony, composed in 1999, stemmed from MacMillan’s interest in Scottish writers, especially poets. Many of them, he said, “have used the concept of Scottish winter, and Scottish wintriness, as a metaphor for the human heart.” That melancholy start is reflected throughout the symphony’s three movements.”Maybe it’s a reflection on the lostness of Scottish culture, what we have lost in our history – the disconnect from the church, the Middle Ages,” said MacMillan. “These can’t but affect the way a Scot reflects on his own past. The poets – they asked the most questions of Scottish society. There’s no compromising in their work.”Shaham and Anthony: A place to call homeThe life of a soloist takes place on the road – in airports and on airplanes, in hotel rooms, taxis and barely familiar concert halls.Take for instance Elijah Shaham. No, he is not a soloist; at 21 months, little Elijah is too young for that. But both of his parents – Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony – are top violinists who travel the globe making music, and Elijah is already living the soloist’s existence.”People always get a kick out of seeing Elijah’s passport,” said Shaham over breakfast at Poppycock’s in downtown Aspen. “It’s like nine pages full of stamps. His passport is almost running out of room.”As a respite from the road, the Shaham/Anthony family has turned to Aspen. Make that returned to Aspen. Shaham and Anthony, both former students at the Aspen Music School, have settled into Aspen for much of the summer. Apart from a very few quick trips, here they will remain, to give themselves and their son a sense of what life is like with a daily routine. While Anthony relishes not having to pack a suitcase most every day, and Shaham gets to settle in to the closest thing he has to a home – he spent most summers of his life here, first with his late father, a physicist associated with the Aspen Center for Physics, and then as a violin student – Elijah has developed a fondness for Aspen’s many parks and even more numerous construction sites.It is an indication of their peripatetic lives that Shaham and Anthony aren’t even sure where they met. “We think we met here,” said Anthony, a native of Tasmania, whose first extended time in the United States was in Aspen. “That’s a tough thing to admit. But we definitely knew each other here, and at school in New York,” said Shaham, who was raised in Israel. The two distinctly remember being apartment mates – quite by accident – for part of one summer in Aspen, though that was well before they became a couple.In addition to having some concept of a home together, the couple, both 33, have begun working together. In the past, they have appeared occasionally in the same chamber music concert, and they did the Bach Double Violin Concerto in Aspen several years ago.Last summer, the two did their first recital together, in Massachusetts. Next year, they will perform several concerts as a duet in Europe.This week, they extend the family even further. Anthony and Shaham will appear in a special event on Sunday, July 25, that also includes Shaham’s sister, pianist Orli Shaham (whose husband is conductor David Robertson, who is not scheduled to perform in Aspen this year). The program includes works by Prokofiev, Chopin, Wieniawski and Moszkowski.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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