MacMillan and friends making Cumnock the meeting place for music
FROM a distance – perhaps 400 miles away, where they tend to be fearfully judgemental – it may have looked a little like a vanity project, and even up-close it can appear to be a one-man operation, although those in the know are clear that the role of his wife Lynne should never be underestimated. But, of course, if Sir James MacMillan had wanted to start a festival to burnish his own halo, it would have been daft to do it in Cumnock, even if that is where the couple hail from.
The Cumnock Tryst, the third edition of which was launched this week and takes place in and around the East Ayrshire town from September 29 to October 2, is far from all about MacMillan, even if his drive brought it into being and sustains it, and it will, once again, include the premiere of a new work from his pen (albeit a niche piece, for contrabass clarinet soloist Scott Lygate, at Dumfries House as part of the closing event on Sunday). In the short time since he dreamt it up, however, the event has found a form and a circle of friends that look sustaining in the long term. The most prominent of these is Ayrshire lass Nicola Benedetti, as patron and participant, who this year brings her trio with cellist partner Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk to Trinity Church in the town to play Ravel, Turnage and Brahms. This may be the definition of a hot ticket. But the event has also forged a partnership with one of the world’s top chamber choirs – and, far from coincidentally, esteemed performers of MacMillan’s choral music – The Sixteen, with singer and conductor Eamonn Dougan directing the Cumnock festival’s own new chorus and Genesis Sixteen, the training academy for young singers that has quickly become a root into the main ensemble, bring new young talent to the event. It has also become part of the annual mix that Cumnock Tryst celebrates the area’s heritage – this year the mining industry’s Barony A Frame and Cumnock’s Bell Tree – and includes traditional music – singer Jackie Oates on the Saturday night at the Dumfries Arms Hotel – as well as the lighter side of singing, with the same venue welcoming a return visit by the wonderfully-acronymed Cumnock Area Musical Production Society (CAMPS). There is also a commitment to education and to working with people with disabilities and learning difficulties, this year linking with Drake Music Scotland and Clarence Adoo and John Kenny in the Headspace group at Cumnock Academy.
All of which is not a million miles away from the model of the St Magnus Festival, established, of course, by another composing knight, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. As that event now annually draws the faithful to Orkney (about 250 miles further from the fearfully judgemental), it is not that fanciful to suggest that the Cumnock Tryst is well on the road to establishing itself as a “destination event”, as they say in the tourism business, appealing to a constituency well beyond fans of contemporary composition alone. The countryside you have no option but travel through to reach Cumnock was looking very lovely indeed on Wednesday evening. Look out for it expanding beyond the main weekend too, with what MacMillan described as “upbeats” whetting the appetite between now and then, beginning with a visit by the Elysian Singers to St John’s in Cumnock on June 9. Contradicting my libel above, Sam Laughton’s choir is, I should be clear, London-based.