CD Review: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s Recording of Sir James MacMillan’s New Trombone Concerto

When, on April 20, 2017, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with soloist Jörgen van Rijen premiered Sir James MacMillan’s new Trombone Concerto, it was both the culmination of months of work and emotional probing, and the initiation of new life. The task of externalizing the internal, which is integral to the task of the composer, was finished, and what was once only personal would begin to take on a life of its own. When the work was commissioned by the combined forces of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Oulu Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonisches Orchester des Staatstheaters Cottbus, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Sir James could not have known that only a few months later his only grandchild, Sara Maria, would pass away. These are the kind of events that shake people to their core, and a work of art would not escape the wrath of this upheaval. The writing of a piece of music is not only, or even primarily for the listener. To relate to an audience is, surely, vital to the success of any piece of art. But, more inherent to the making of art, is the coming to terms with one’s own emotions, with one’s own experiences. To write a piece of music while mourning is not merely to write a mournful piece. It is to write a piece that comes to terms with mourning, with the totality of the life lived, and with the totality of the emotions that accompany the loss. In a “lesser” artist, the creation of this art is only personal. It is “therapy art.” But a “true” artist, one whose vocation is to make art, is marked by the ability to transcend, transfigure personal suffering into something more than just personal.

It is worth noting that it is difficult to enter into music that is not programmic, or whose form is more fluid than the Classical and Romantic forms to which we have grown accustomed, such as the sonata or the symphony. Sir James’ piece is neither programmic, as he made it very clear in an interview with The Scotsman that “It's a big abstract piece, it has no particular message, but subliminally it's haunted by [Sara’s] memory,” nor does it take the shape of any traditional form. Even still, music which is not programmic can still have direction and movement, and Sir James’ piece is clearly a movement from sadness and lament to glory and resurrection. Even a cursory listen to the piece makes one aware of the lament in the music, especially the trombone glissandi scattered throughout the piece. The siren has its own significance in the music proper, but its screams tear right through the heart when one realizes its conception under the atmosphere of mourning. It also does not take too much to realize the joy inherent in the music, from the dance- like movements scattered throughout, to the hymn-like chamber chorales following, and truly punctuating the moments of most intense rhythm and chaos.

One criticism of “modern” artistic forms is that they depend too often on the personal “logic” and idiosyncrasies of the composer, which are difficult for the listener to enter into. One needs to look no further than James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to experience the “impenetrability” of these kinds of forms. I would argue, though, that the piece’s structure is more “contemplative” than just “stream of consciousness.” The piece is divided into multiple sections, and almost all of them contain completely new music, although the motif stated at the
beginning runs through all of them. The only music which is repeated relatively clearly is the opening, which is revisited a little over halfway through the piece, and the chorale which is intoned around the midway point in the trombone and is revisited at the very end of the piece, transfigured quite radiantly. Otherwise, the only linking factor between the movements is the motif at the beginning. Even still, this is not really a Theme and Variations set. The music is “through-composed,” each section bleeding over and into the next and vice-versa. Often, it is difficult to tell when a section has ended and when the next begins. What is created is a strange unity of disparate themes and characters by a unity of origin. This is why I want to call the form of this piece “contemplative.” It reminds me of the mantric prayer espoused by Christian authors such as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. The basic idea behind mantric prayer is the repetition of a single word or phrase in order to center one’s focus and to bind one’s consciousness to the idea said. What it results in is a kind of “circular prayer” one that constantly returns to the “source” (the mantra) for renewal but is still constantly moving upward, and the disparate desires and humanity of the penitent is united by the repetition of the mantra. It seems to me that this is very similar to the form of Sir James MacMillan’s Trombone Concerto. The motif is stated at the beginning and is almost constantly present throughout the piece. However, the piece is a meditation on that motif. The constant repetition changes not only how we hear it, but also how we hear everything else, and there is a great sense of closure with the chorale at the end of the piece because we sense not only the “motion upward” which has taken place over the course of the work, a movement from the opening lament to (seemingly) the Beatific Vision, but we also sense that the glory of the end was always present in the beginning, and that the repetition has changed not only the motif itself into something glorious, but has changed us, the listeners, as well.

I think that this piece is rather remarkable in Sir James’ output. It has no, as far as I can tell, “traditional” Catholic references in it, either programmically or musically. One does not need to look too far into his output to find works such as his recent Stabat Mater, composed for The Sixteen, or his Seven Last Words from the Cross which set Biblical, or Biblically-adjacent texts to music, or to find works such as his Cello Concerto, the Good Friday portion of his Triduum, commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra in the late 90’s, or his Veni, Veni Emmanuel which play, musically, with Christian hymns (the music for Good Friday, with particular emphasis on the “Crux Fidelis,” and the hymn “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,” respectively). This piece neither tells a Christian story, nor quotes Christian music. But, I do not believe that one needs to do either in order to be a Christian composer.

The Trombone Concerto is, extraordinarily, all that it sets out to be. It is a dirge for those lost. It is a celebration of life. It is an unbelievable vehicle for the abilities of the trombone, and of the virtuoso trombonist. And, more than anything else, it is James MacMillan. It is a work inexorably formed by his hands, and is the unique outworking of his spirit. But, it also transcends that. He speaks in a language which is undoubtedly modern, but universal, and it communicates that Truth and Beauty which is a person, which walked on this Earth, and which experienced joys and suffering. God the Father knows what it is to lose a loved one. And James’ voice becomes His voice. A voice of truth, and beauty, and hope.