Unrest down under over Scottish conductor of youth orchestra

We have been alerted to some social-media discontent in New Zealand over the appointment of Sir James MacMillan as conductor of the 2017 NZSO National Youth Orchestra.

Here’s a prominent sample:

I’m writing to express my concern and disappointment at the appointment of Sir James MacMillan as conductor of the 2017 NZSO National Youth Orchestra.

Regardless of his perceived qualities as a conductor and/or composer, his role with the NYO is primarily an educational one, to foster the talents of our young instrumentalists and composers. I would contend that his extreme conservative viewpoints – anti-secularist, anti-feminist, homophobic, islamophobic, misogynistic – make him unsuitable to be teaching and leading a large group of young people in a government-funded institution. I believe the NZSO has social responsibilities as well as musical ones….

Although some of his offending tweets have been deleted, James MacMillan’s twitter account is still a source of enthusiastic, radical conservatism….Many retweets of Roger Scruton articles, including his “Becoming a Family” which aggressively advocates for a return to traditional gender roles.

The letter is signed by Alex Taylor, a former composer-in-residence with the youth orchestra. Read the full text here.


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  • There seems to be a sort of confected indignation here, with the complainant adducing endorsement from a few retweets from largely mainstream sources.

    Is he seriously contending that Roger Scruton, Standpoint magazine, the Spectator and the Telegraph don’t have a place in civilised discourse?

    Having known and worked with James MacMillan over several years in all sorts of professional, community and educational settings, the NZ students of all backgrounds can look forward to a mild-mannered, warm and reflective character sharing his considerable expertise. He’s not that scary!!

    • James is a wonderful guy, and I’ve known him for many years here in England. I also lived in Glasgow and see the work he did, long before he was famous and knighted, which has never made any difference to him. Met him at a concert in Glasgow only last year. He was just great when he was at Manchester Grammar School as composer in residence for a while with those young people, and has a fine reputation with so much up and go. Most of all I find him to be a man of immense integrity, sincere, loyal, and with all his ‘fame and fortune’, has never turned his back on his local Scottish Catholic church and composed for them, never forgetting where he came from. And that’s all before his musical qualities. NZ? Well … what can one say.

  • Having read his writings, seen him talk in person and watched video interviews, I have been struck by how mild mannered and kind he seems. Musicians with genuinely radical (read: socialist) views have educated the young for ages — and they have been great teachers, might I add. I suspect the problem is that MacMillan, unusually, has views that aren’t at all radical.

    Moreover, are any of the actual students involved complaining? How much do you want to bet that most of them don’t give a damn and are just excited to learn from a leading composer.

  • A gentle, compassionate man who works tirelessly for music education and social inclusion, often in the face of aggressive personal abuse (particularly from CyberNats) as well as being a composer of near genius…who just happens to be a devout Catholic, and unafraid to articulate his beliefs.

    The current tragedy of the centre-left is exactly this inability to comprehend or tolerate alternative viewpoints. When it tries to silence even moderate dissenting opinion by stigmatising it as “extreme”, it fails to see the damage it does to itself. Though I see that Mr Taylor is himself a composer and wonder if there isn’t perhaps another bit of antipodean slang that covers this situation perfectly: “tall poppy syndrome”.

    • Where left and right become extreme, they meet at the point of totalitarianism. Both forms are, in fact, populist, and populism is the breeding ground of fascism, as history learns and the present day informs.

      And then, to mention Roger Scruton as aggressive: ‘……. including his “Becoming a Family” which aggressively advocates for a return to traditional gender roles’, is ridiculous. Traditional gender roles have never disappeared and are still mainstream, they are merely added to with other roles which do not in the least ‘threaten’ traditional roles. And being a Roman Catholic composer in an age of cynicism, materialism, and leftwing extremism like poststructuralism and postmodernism, is quite sane, I would think.

  • Is Alex Taylor suggesting that anyone who promotes the teachings of the roman catholic church should be excluded from this appointment, surely not.

    • Well said, but as a Catholic myself, albeit not a Scottish Catholic, you get used to the discrimination after a while and the stereotype views of other as to what we believe in – basic Christianity, but people don’t like that either.

  • As a composer in Scotland who was once married to a New Zealander, I’m intrigued by this. I’ll ask my erstwhile wife for her take on it (she returned to NZ 19 years ago).

    MacMillan did say one or two rather exaggerated things at the time of the Scottish independence referendum (eg comparing a group of artists who supported independence to acolytes of Mussolini), but one would hope that it is his musicianship and his notable ability to communicate it enthusiastically to the young that counts.

  • Does pseudo-religious, pretentious and opportunist drivel ‘count’ as serious ‘compositions’? I am thinking also of the late Master of the Queen’s Music, NO not Sir PMD, but Malcolm Williamson.

  • Typical behaviour from the left: will whinge about anyone who has a different opinion. Sounds almost fascist… 😉

  • What a silly man – Alex Taylor, not Sir James MacMillan.
    “Sour Grapes”. Nothing more, nothing less. Look no further.
    Sir James will bring so much to NZ young musicians from a great talent, and one with integrity.

  • The effluvium of leftist attacks is more than tiresome. It represents exactly the kind of authoritarianism and fundamentalist ideology of which they accuse their victims. A creative artist is entitled to his own political views as long as they do not affect his (or her)
    artistic performance. I suspect there is personal animosity involved as well. These demented critics need to be shunned, not least for putting politics ahead of art. Truly disgusting but a sign of the times, when all manner of jerks can actually make themselves heard even when they have nothing to say of interest or value.

    • Definitely not wanting to get into a futile political argument, but not all on the left are prescriptive let alone bullying, any more than all on the right are greedy and callous (substitute whatever L or R stereotypes you wish).

      However, MacMillan (and indeed his successors) should be appointed because of their musical and communicative abilities first and foremost. If the young people disagree with MacMillan on social and political issues, they will surely be entitled, able and willing to say so. NZ is not a society in which people, even the young, are afraid to speak their opinions.

  • Oohh, scratch an anti-leftist sensibility and the diatribe shoots out, like water from the proverbial dyke (I mean the stop-bank variety!). Alex Taylor is perfectly entitled to his opinion, as are the righteous right-ist sensibilities massed against his views, but to describe individual viewpoints as typical of particular political leanings is point-making of the crudest and most bigoted variety (the “looney left” mantra used by people of a certain persuasion which shows them up for the blinkered, self-satisfied, and ultimately scary people the rest of us have the misfortune to share the world with!)…….

    • Whether or not one agrees with Alex Taylor, he is surely perfectly entitled to express concern if he genuinely feels that MacMillan’s social, religious and political views will be a bad influence on the young people. I feel he was very wrong to express this in a public forum, rather than privately to the relevant people. I also think he is completely and absurdly wrong in believing (it seems) that MacMillan will try to impose his non-musical views on these young musicians.

      As it happens, I’m a bit of an old socialist and a crabbity old atheist myself, so I don’t share all of MacMillans non-musical opinions. Nevertheless, I feel he is likely to be a truly wonderful person at working with the 2017 NZSO National Youth Orchestra, and if it were up to me I would unreservedly support his appointment.

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