James MacMillan’s new oboe concerto: a personal view from Nicholas Daniel

Nicholas Daniel

Nicholas Daniel

On Monday 18 October oboist Nicholas Daniel will give the London premiere of  James MacMillan’s new oboe concerto at Queen Elizabeth Hall. Here Nicholas Daniel gives a personal view of the piece and how it was developed.

‘Sometimes important new pieces emerge after a long ‘courtship’ with a composer, sometimes they come out of the blue. With the James MacMillan Oboe Concerto it has been born out of a long, happy and fruitful working relationship and friendship, between James and myself and between James and the Britten Sinfonia. It is quite clear from his writing that in this time he has come to understand my playing profoundly both as conductor and composer, and, very importantly for the new piece, he understands the important relationship between me and my colleagues in the Britten Sinfonia. This, after all, is the orchestra I am a founder member of, who I adore more than any other, and keep a watchful eye on at all times, and for whom, uniquely, my wind ensemble, Haffner Winds, is the wind section.

Luckily for us the Concerto has come at a time when he seems to have found terrific ease and confidence, and even fun, in his music. One instruction in the music is ‘laughing’, for instance, over a cascade of trilled notes!

I was lucky enough to perform The World’s Ransoming, part of his massive and impressive Easter work Triune, for Cor Anglais and large orchestra, with Jimmy in my favourite Polish city, Wroclaw, 2 years ago. It was in one of the astounding churches on an island in the city centre – a very special calm and serenity descends on one there. At one moment in the piece the Cor Anglais enters on a high D# adorned with what sounds like a glitter of starlight in the percussion and I just remember looking up at Jimmy at that point and being so inspired to see the music so visible in his face that the high D# just floated out exactly as I wanted it to. Its a great gift he has to make it so easy to understand his music just by his manner and physical expression, as well as by what he says.

On that visit to Poland we discussed some general points about the Concerto, and I believe I may have made the slight mistake of asking him not to limit in any way what he wanted to write! I say mistake but I don’t mean it, of course, but the piece is really quite hard! Its arguably the most technical concerto in an oboistic sense that has been written since Elliot Carter’s. In fact I have found it harder to learn than the Carter.

When I got the music a short while ago it looked to me rather like Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto in terms of the oboe writing, by which I mean flowingly virtuosic and needing an effortlessness to the technique. It also has a very exciting soloistic and supportive role for the wind, brass and timps inside the orchestra. There is no operatic aspect of this in terms of peripatitetic requirements, but the calling across the orchestra of various groups of instruments will be a stand out feature of the work, as is palindromic writing. The slow movement is a total re-write of a solo oboe piece Jimmy wrote after the 9/11 atrocity in America, In Angustiis ii. The original piece is desolate, lost, post-nuclear, horrifying, but the concerto to me seems to have more companionship in it and more hope, and maybe more beauty.

In a way it’s hard to write about it because I haven’t heard it all yet and haven’t put it with the audience, and that changes everything. I’m finishing this little insight for you on the train on the way to the first rehearsal, and I am so excited and nervous, and honoured to have such a fine, confident piece written for me.’

To book tickets for Monday’s performance, which also features Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 and Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, click here.

James MacMillan’s Oboe Concerto is co-commissioned by Britten Sinfonia and Birmingham Town Hall, and is also being performed in Brimingham, Cambridge and Norwich.

Get to know oboist Nicholas Daniel

Oboist Nicholas Daniel talks about his career, loves and memories ahead of his concert with Britten Sinfonia on 18 October, when he will premiere James MacMillan’s Oboe Concerto.

You’ve been with Britten Sinfonia since its formation, what is your favourite memory from the concert platform?

It has to be premiering John Tavener’s Kaleidoscopes. That piece has something very special inside it, and it was a huge physical challenge. It was really the combination of the inspiration of the work and the relief that I found I could actually play it at all!

And what is your fondest memory from backstage with the orchestra?

It’s very focussed backstage actually, and we all have places to go afterwards, but I loved when we came offstage after a Mozart Piano Concerto at Aldeburgh with Pierre Laurent Aimard, and he shocked me by saying ‘we were fabulous!”…. and then made me roar with laughter by saying ‘but as always, he was better’ meaning Mozart!

What’s it like to play within an orchestra’s woodwind section rather than as a soloist?

Hard. Much more time to be stressed and much more responsibility! I have to really work at being good at it.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

I don’t think in those terms really, I look at the now as much as I can rather the past or the future, but I guess if you push me: always the Proms, the BBC Competition 30 years ago, obviously, but generally the highlights are when I play a new piece for the first time, it’s just such an honour and a buzz. John Woolrich’s Concerto for instance-such a moving work. I am also so happy when my wonderful students have successes in and out of the teaching studio. They work so hard.

When are you happiest?

I try and live in the now, I’m generally a very happy person and try to get maximum pleasure from each experience.  I would say;  when I’m with my sons, when I’m making music, when my students improve and notice it, when I’m with people I love, on taking off in a plane and at the sound of a fine bottle of red wine or Champagne being opened!

What is your earliest musical memory?

Gilbert and Sullivan at my piano teacher’s school in Welwyn Garden City.  I was 5 and was riveted!

Which living person do you most admire, and why?

The Dalai Lama. His ability to give of himself is so inspiring and effortless. He embodies love and patience and the stillest of still places. I have an ambition to meet him.

What is your most treasured possession?

Other than my oboe it has to be my iphone! It is simply indispensable. I would bore you by going on about all the lovely things it does for me… I also have some  beautiful multi-coloured sand that I was given from a Sand Mandala by the Monks of the Drepung Loselung Monastery when they came to my Festival in Leicester. They have some of my CDs in the library there now! It was a simply mind-blowing experience to see what happened when they blessed this art with music and prayer. They gave little bags of the sand from the destroyed mandala to us. The energy I feel from that sand is still incredible, I generally keep it near my oboe.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

Straight to Bach’s Leipzig to start with to meet him and save all the lost music, then drop off on my way back to now at Mozart’s time to find what he did with the lost oboe concertos, then on to Beethoven, to rip the still-wet manuscript of the also lost oboe concerto out of his hands, then to visit Debussy to get him to hurry up with that sonata for oboe horn and harpsichord before he dies, then on to the young Leon Goossens to threaten him with extreme violence if he didn’t get concertos and sonatas out of his friends Sibelius, Ravel, Stravinsky, Elgar, and Britten.

How do you relax away from the concert platform?

It’s a joy to be with my sons and attend various of their happenings. I’ve taken up running, thanks to my trusty iphone and a programme called ‘couch to 5k’ which guides one through (over my own choice of music) to being able to run 5 kilometres 3 times a week over 3 months. I love to cook, the theatre, I just saw and love La Bete, musical theatre, (Priscilla!!) my eldest son is studying MT in London, concerts, cinema, walking, good wine, cocktails with friends, clubbing (!). I have a small collection of very fine contemporary art that I am very proud of and love passionately. Most of it was bought through the Thomas Robertello Gallery in Chicago. He’s a great friend of mine and I trust his taste in artists and in which are their best and most investment-worthy pieces. For instance Adam Eckberg, I have 3 of his works and Mike Nudelman is AMAZING.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Other than my sons, and in fact they are their own achievement, I would say it was the legacy of works I have commissioned and premiered over the last 30 years, and the fact that I have been able to take a relatively rare instrument and make it a little more known on a solo basis. I’m also very proud of the fine musicians I have helped to become professionals through my teaching, and of the ones I’m about to unleash on the public!

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

To listen, in every respect, and to be myself, and I will hopefully be enough.


James MacMillan conducts the London premiere of his new Oboe Concerto, written for Nicholas Daniel and the Britten Sinfonia, on Monday 18 October. The concert also features works by Shostakovich and Beethoven. Click here for details and online booking.