EUGENE – Sir James MacMillan sits amid the organized clutter of his office in the catacombs of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. For the recently knighted Scottish composer and conductor it’s a temporary headquarters, with a couple of chairs, a small black leather couch, and a little table covered with papers, among them the blue-bound score to his new work A European Requiem, which will have its premiere on Saturday night at the Oregon Bach Festival.
It’s early Tuesday afternoon of this week, and MacMillan is on a brief break between a rehearsal and yet another of the many meetings that go along with his busy life. On this evening he’ll conduct the festival’s chamber orchestra in a concert that includes two of his own works, then prepare for a Thursday afternoon lecture and Saturday’s Requiem premiere, one of the focal points of this year’s Bach Fest, which continues at various concert halls in Eugene through July 10. Another new work, a Stabat Mater, will be premiered in London in mid-October, and among other things he’s also in the midst of preparing for the third annual run of his own small musical festival, the Cumnock Tryst, in Ayrshire, where he grew up, about 40 miles south of Glasgow. “It’s a little thing,” he says affectionately. “Four days in the autumn. I’m getting excited.”
In person MacMillan, who is 56 and was knighted last year (“Totally delighted,” he told the press at the time), is friendly, open, and eloquent, speaking softly and thoughtfully, with the steady backbeat and slight staccato sting of his native Scots tongue. He speaks as much about culture and its meanings as he does about music, and by implication at least, about the inevitable connection between the two. A close observer of history and “human nature as it passes,” he thinks deeply on the fractures and dislocations of modernity, the intentional divorcement from the past, including the relentless secularization of contemporary life. In this he feels embattled but not alone: “In our own time it’s quite clear that an awful lot of composers have been in search of something sacred.”