James MacMillan's Cumnock Tryst mixes global stars and local talent

It's only the fourth annual Cumnock Tryst Festival, but already, it seems, audiences in the former Ayrshire mining area are ready and willing to negotiate the uncompromising musical challenges of hardline 20th century modernists Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Per Norgard and Elliott Carter. That's the confident opinion of the festival's founder and artistic director Sir James MacMillan, who reckons that such a hard-edged programme of solo percussion music, played by international virtuoso Colin Currie, will go down a treat as a Friday night out in downtown New Cumnock.
Sir James MacMillan PIC: Robin MitchellSir James MacMillan PIC: Robin Mitchell
Sir James MacMillan PIC: Robin Mitchell

“Colin will sell it,” says MacMillan. And sure enough, tickets for the event are going like hot cakes. The point is, someone with MacMillan’s pull factor can ensure the hottest classical stars will say ‘yes’ when invited to play at his off-the-beaten-track festival. And local folk trust him enough to put on something they may not be familiar with, but when played by the best musicians around is well worth a try.

Just look at the red hot line-up for this year’s festival, which runs from this Thursday to Sunday 1 October. Besides Scots-born Currie, who opens the four-day programme in Cumnock Town Hall with the Scottish Ensemble and a brand new work for solo percussion, piano, electronics and ensemble by Dave Maric, this year’s visiting artists include the first ever venture north of the Border by London’s world-renowned Westminster Cathedral Choir, as well as hot young guitarist Sean Shibe and the richly burnished brass virtuosi of The Wallace Collection.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

MacMillan is over the moon that the Westminster choir and its director Martin Baker are gracing his home town, and what’s more, staying on to lead the Festival Mass. “Just think, [the choir] will be singing its usual Sunday cathedral gig, but doing it here in St John’s Church where I played the organ as a teenager,” he says.

The core reason for their visit is a concert the day before to perform one of MacMillan’s most treasured works, the Seven Last Words from the Cross, in which they team up with this year’s artists-in-residence, the all-string Scottish Ensemble.

It’s the first time MacMillan has programmed a major work of his own at the festival. “I’ve held off including big pieces of mine, but I knew there would have to be one at some point,” he explains. “Getting the right one, and ensuring it was suitable for the modest halls and churches we have in Cumnock”, was important to him. But when the Westminster Cathedral Choir indicated they might come up, coupled with the fact the Scottish Ensemble were involved with Cappella Nova in the work’s original premiere, all the necessary components fell into place.

Commissioned in 1994 by BBC Television, who screened it in nightly episodes during Holy Week, it’s a work the composer holds especially dear. It has been, and still is, performed extensively around the globe, he says, but it hasn’t been heard in Scotland for several years, and never before in Cumnock.

Elsewhere in this year’s festival, MacMillan places emphasis on local talent. In the same programme as the Seven Last Words, Sean Shibe and the Scottish Ensemble will premiere two new works by Auchinleck composer Michael Murray, one of them a guitar concerto called Pilgrims.

Murray’s story is the stuff of fantasy. “I remember him when he was still at school,” says MacMillan. He was a shy, very serious youngster who came over and showed me incredible scores in the style of Cage and Xenakis. Then in the melee of the day we just went our separate ways and I often wondered what happened to him.”

It turns out that Murray, now in his 30s, never went on to study music, but worked instead as a night watchman in an Ayr shopping mall, where he regularly whiles away the hours writing music. “He lives for composing, does it every day of his life. He’s very flexible in style. Sometimes he really pushes the envelope with modernist traits; other times you hear influences of folk, rock and jazz.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

There’s more local music by the hugely talented Jay Capperauld, whose tasteful originality and musical eccentricities have been championed by MacMillan in previous Trysts. This year he’s written a work for The Wallace Collection and Dalmellington Band called As Above, So Below. “Jay and John Wallace had this great idea where the Wallace Collection are virtuoso concertante soloists against some fantastic but manageable writing for the band,” MacMillan explains.

So once again, Cumnock and the surrounding towns will resonate to a weekend of great music thanks to a festival that has successfully brought together world-leading artists with local choirs and schools.

MacMillan’s influence is paramount. He brings funding from as far away as the USA and is confident the festival has a rosy future. “I think we can expand more,” he says. “We’ll test the ground over the next few years.” ■

The Cumnock Tryst runs from 28 September until 1 October. Full programme details at www.thecumnocktryst.com