Nicola Benedetti helps Cumnock music festival bid

James MacMillan and Nicola Benedetti unveiled the plan in Dumfries. Picture: Donald MacLeod
James MacMillan and Nicola Benedetti unveiled the plan in Dumfries. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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SCOTLAND’s leading composer James MacMillan and violin sensation Nicola Benedetti today launched a bid to put a historic market town on the nation’s cultural map with its own international music festival.

Cumnock, the market town previously best known as the long-time home of Labour Party founder James Keir Hardie, will play host to four days of concerts this time next year.

The new annual event is the brainchild of MacMillan, who was brought up in the East Ayrshire town, and lived there until he went to study music at Edinburgh University, before rising to become one of the UK’s top composers.

MacMillan - who will be writing a major new piece of music for the first festival - said he wanted to do for Cumnock what Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Benjamin Britten had done for Orkney and Aldeburgh respectively.

MacMillan said next year’s programme was virtually in place and would cost up to £150,000 to stage, a cost he described as “loose change” compared to other festivals around the country.

Although classical music will take centre-stage in the programme, the town’s twin traditions of choral and brass band music will play a major part.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the BBC SSO are among the acts understood to have been in talks over the event. MacMillan has also vowed to embrace the likes of world music, folk, jazz and even literature in future events.

He said he could envisage being involved with the festival - which will have its own late-night Fringe club - for the rest of his life.

He has vowed to bring “some of the greatest musicians in the world” to Cumnock next October, as well as involve schoolchildren and local groups in the event, which has been inspired by his own “seminal” experiences growing up surrounded by music in the mining community.

Benedetti, who was born and brought up in West Kilbride before winning a place - when she was 10 - at the Yehudi Menuhin school for young musicians in Surrey, has agreed to be the patron of the event and is also expected to appear at least twice in its first year.

She performed at the festival’s launch at the Dumfries Arms Hotel, which will host the festival club, just days after picking up the award for best female artist at the Classical Brits at the Royal Albert Hall.

Benedetti said: “James and I are always corresponding by email wherever we are around the world.

“He got in touch with me about a year ago. It didn’t take much to get me involved in the festival as it was coming from James and it also had the word ‘Cumnock’ in it, which was a great pull.

“My grandfather had a small cottage on the outskirts of the Auchinleck Estate, just outside Cumnock, my mum grew up there and my uncle still stays there.

“I was sure anything James was responsible for he would do brilliantly, but I never imagined something quite like this, which will deeply connect the very best musicians with the core of the community on every single level.

“Music is one of the most powerful components of trying to bind a community and giving people an experience that they can come together through.

“It should have an enormous impact, in bringing people together and giving them ownership over something that has international stature, but is also theirs.”

The new festival is to be known as The Cumnock Tryst, inspired by a piece that MacMillan wrote when he was still living there, when he set William Soutar’s love poem The Tryst to music.

MacMillan: “Having grown up in Cumnock, I realise what a great tradition of music-making there has been here. It just needs the embers to be revived again.

“I’m a musician because of Cumnock, really. I made my first music and performances here, with friends, relatives, schoolmates and teachers. It was all the music-making in the town while I was growing up that made me want to become a musician and composer.

“Because of these seminal experiences I’ve followed a life of music, composing and working with some of the most wonderful musicians of our time all over the world. Now I want to bring some of that back.”

Six venues will be hosting events, including several spaces in Dumfries House, the stately home just outside the town, which Prince Charles has helped secure the future of.

Others include St John the Evangelist Church, where MacMillan played the organ for five years from the age of 13, the town’s Victorian town hall, which is currently undergoing a refurbishment, the Old Cumnock Church and Cumnock Academy’s assembly hall.

MacMillan said memories of visiting the early St Magnus Festivals in Orkney had stayed in his mind as the “germ” of an idea which could be replicated in Cumnock.

He added: “I remember thinking: ‘This is fantastic. He’s just inviting his friends, who just happen to some of the greatest musicians in the world, to come and play in church halls and other local venues.’

“It was that fusion of the local, the national and the international that made it so magical.

“If I was going to do it, it would have to be here in Cumnock, and it has felt like the right time recently. A big factor is what has happened since Dumfries House was bought up by a consortium led by Prince Charles and has become the focal point of a lot of regeneration in the area.

“That is obviously a political and economic thing, but there’s also such a thing as spiritual regeneration. Music especially revives the soul and if this place is to be fully regenerated it needs an artistic and cultural development too.”

Details of the new event have been announced just days after it was confirmed that the pair would lead a tour of India with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland next year.