James Macmillan Oboe Concerto
Sometimes important new pieces emerge after a long ‘courtship’ with a composer, sometimes they come out of the blue. With the James MacMillan Oboe Concerto it has been born out of a long, happy and fruitful working relationship and friendship between both James and myself and between the Britten Sinfonia and this great man.
In this time it is quite clear from his writing that he has come to understand my playing deeply as conductor and composer, and very importantly for the new piece, the important relationship between me and my colleagues in of the Britten Sinfonia. The piece has also come at a time when he seems to have found terrific ease and confidence, and even fun in his music.
This is the orchestra I am a founder member of, who I adore and keep a watchful eye on at all times, and for whom, uniquely, my wind ensemble, Haffner Winds, is the wind section.
I was lucky enough to perform ‘The World’s Ransoming’ with Jimmy in my favourite Polish city, Wroclaw, 2 years ago. It was in one of the astounding churches on an island in the city centre where there are several of them, and a very special calm and serenity comes to one there. At one moment in the piece where the Cor Anglais enters on a high D# adorned with what sounds like a glitter of starlight in the percussion and I just remember looking up at Jimmy at that point and being so inspired to see the music so visible in his face that the high D# just floated out exactly as I wanted it to. Its a great gift he has to make it so easy to understand his music just by his manner and physical expression.
On that visit to Poland we discussed some general points about the Concerto in a meeting, and I believe I may have made the slight mistake of asking him not to limit in any way what he wanted to write! I say mistake but I don’t mean it , of course, but the piece is really quite hard! Its arguably the most technical concerto in an oboistic sense that has been written since Elliot Carter’s. In fact I have found it harder to learn than the Carter.
When I got the music a short while ago it looked to me rather like Nielson’s Clarinet Concerto in terms of the Oboe writing, by which I mean flowingly virtuosic and needing an effortlessness to the technique. It also has a very exciting soloistic and supportive role for the wind, brass and timps inside the orchestra. There is no operatic aspect of this in terms of peripatitetic requirements, but the calling across the orchestra of various groups of instruments will be a stand out feature of the work.
The slow movement is a total re-write of a solo Oboe piece Jimmy wrote after the 9/11 atrocity, In Angustiis ii. The original piece is desolate, lost, post-nuclear, horrifying, but the concerto to me seems to have more companionship in it and more hope, and maybe more beauty. In a way its hard to write about it because I haven’t heard it all yet and haven’t put it with the audience, and that changes everything.
Finishing this little piece for you on the train on the way to the first rehearsal I am so excited and nervous, and honoured to have such a fine, confident piece written for me.