James MacMillan has a knack for controversy. A year ago, the Scottish composer gave a speech in which he warned of "ignorance-fueled hostility to religion'' by liberal elites. He said that embracing spirituality is one of the most radical things a musician can do.
As a Roman Catholic, MacMillan is part of a distinct minority in largely Protestant Scotland, and he has raised hackles among his fellow Scots through the years by writing and speaking about the anti-Catholic bigotry he experienced growing up in the 1960s in rural Ayrshire, not far from Glasgow. He has even blamed the 16th century Scottish Reformation as a root cause for his homeland's relatively undistinguished classical music heritage.
But two weeks ago, speaking by phone from Manchester, England, where he was conducting the BBC Philharmonic, MacMillan amiably dismissed his reputation as a kind of cultural bomb thrower.
"People have always argued about religion,'' he said in a soft Scottish burr. "Sometimes that brings hostility, but we shouldn't take it too personally and probably ought to develop a thick skin.''
As a young man, MacMillan was a fiery socialist. Now he describes himself as "a lapsed left-winger, or a recovering liberal.'' But he's quick to add that "I've not become right-wing in the process. I'd say I'm very much an agnostic now when it comes to politics.''
MacMillan, 50, who has a strong claim on being the greatest living British composer, will be in the Tampa Bay area this week to conduct the Florida Orchestra in one of his latest works, The Sacrifice: Three Interludes. This comes after two other works by him, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie and his percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, were performed with great success by the orchestra during the past two seasons.
The interludes come from MacMillan's second opera, The Sacrifice, based on a story in The Mabinogian, a collection of Welsh myths. They are short — totaling about 14 minutes — and are like orchestral "postcards'' from the opera, said MacMillan, who was inspired by Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes.
MacMillan's program is anchored by Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 4, one of the English composer's nine symphonies. "There is a kind of British trajectory in modality in the 20th century for which Vaughan Williams was a very important figure,'' said MacMillan, making his first visit to Florida. "He's not as well known outside the U.K., so I'm very keen to bring his music with me when I go abroad.''
Also on the program is Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, with concertmaster Jeffrey Multer as the soloist. This reinforces the British theme since the German Mendelssohn spent much time in Victorian England and composed several classics inspired by his travels in Scotland.
To have a composer of MacMillan's stature conducting his own work is a big deal. "There is something special about a composer's own reading of his music,'' he said. "That doesn't mean it's the best reading, but there's a uniqueness about it that gets inside the music in a particular kind of way.''
A lot of MacMillan's music has an obviously Scottish flavor — he thinks his Piano Concerto No. 2 and A Scotch Bestiary, an organ concerto, are his most indigenous recent works — but he also clearly has a kinship with Shostakovich and later Russian composers like Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina, and the Estonian Arvo Part. He is fascinated by their musical responses to a totalitarian, antireligious society.
"Many of the post-Shostakovich composers in Soviet Russia and other countries behind the Iron Curtain were profoundly religious in their outlook,'' he said. "That's obviously a reaction against the imposition of a state atheism on the culture.''
MacMillan is a prolific composer — he has 183 works listed on the Web site of his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes — who frequently writes religious music, such as his mammoth St. John Passion, which will be given its U.S. premiere in January by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Many of his choral works are settings of liturgical texts.
The influence of Catholicism on his composing has "become more conscious as the years have gone by,'' said MacMillan, married with three children, who directs a Dominican church choir in Glasgow. "I'm very aware that there is a huge body of people who regard music as a truly spiritual art form. I think I'm simply recognizing the truth of that observation and I open myself up to the deeper theological meaning of my work.''
With his religious preoccupations, MacMillan puts himself in the tradition of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Messiaen and other composers of a spiritual bent. "Quite a prominent number of major figures of our musical heritage of recent time have been on a search for the sacred,'' he said. "You could say that the cutting-edge thrust of modern music is deeply entwined with a religious instinct.''
In some ways, MacMillan sees spirituality as the salvation of classical music in the face of an overwhelmingly secular pop culture. "The ubiquity of pop culture has pushed people's curiosity about the arts to the periphery,'' he said. "Perhaps we need to find that curiosity again. Perhaps when people tire of the blandness of mass-produced pop culture and its connections with advertising, they'll go searching again, and perhaps they'll find something of more sustenance in so-called serious music. We, or at least our music, will be waiting for them.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.