By Christopher Morley



James B. Wilson owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Cheltenham Music Festival.


“They are renowned for their support of new music and have provided many opportunities to me.,” he begins.


“After graduating from the Royal Academy of Music I was invited to participate in their Composes’ Academy and wrote probably what I consider my Opus number one, a choral piece called ‘Lullaby’.”


That was in 2014 and since then I was commissioned again to write a piece for Chineke!  which was ‘The Green Fuse’, a response to a Dylan Thomas poem. It was Chineke!’s first-ever commission, something historic I am proud to have had a hand in. That work was later recorded on the NMC label and has become quite a calling-card for me. So Cheltenham’s support has been invaluable in my progression as an artist.”


James  has repaid his debt by composing a new work for the Festival, the latest in its proud, long line of commissions, due to be premiered by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on July 8, the opening night of this year’s festivities.


“This commission for the CBSO came about as part of the 150th year celebrations of Vaughan Williams’ birth. I was asked to commemorate this milestone with a new work for orchestra that would pay homage to him but also look to the future.”


There is a largely pastoral current running this programme conducted by Andrew Gourlay, with Tamsin Waley-Cohen the violin soloist in Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, and Beetoven’s Pastoral Symphony to conclude.


James explains how his eight-minute piece fits into this scheme.


“I was looking for a way to relate and respond to the music of Vaughan Williams. I’m so inspired by his music. Before starting the piece I listened to all of his symphonies and many other major works. I am struck by his versatility and what a towering figure he is musically. But like many I am particularly drawn to his works described as pastoral and that was the catalyst for the idea behind my ‘Eden’.  


“Eden is not about creating musical paradise but instead it takes many of the hallmarks of pastoral music, the consonant modal harmony and beautiful melodies, and saturates and intensifies them, like an ultraviolet landscape. I also, felt compelled to bring in something truly from nature, part of the building blocks of sound itself: the harmonic series. There is a force to this fusion. The music you will hear is more akin to the hardness and permanence of a majestic rock face than gentle rolling hills, although beauty and warmth typified in William’s work remains, I think.”


James goes on to tell me about his origins and background, with some surprises along the way.


“I come from a non-musical background; no one in my family played an instrument (or went to university), so my decision to pursue a career as a classical composer came as quite a surprise to them.


“Saying that, I am lucky to have a rich family history, with my maternal grandparents being part of the Windrush generation and my dad’s family being firmly British. In today's climate, being a composer and creative requires taking risks, but even more so growing up as someone of mixed heritage.


“As a young student I lacked visible role models in classical music, I couldn’t even name another black composer or performer before starting my undergrad degree! However, my love for music surpassed that. My passion for creativity and expressivity has always been a driving force in my life. And I feel glad to witness the positive changes taking place in the industry, with organisations like Chineke! providing support and fostering exceptional musical talent from diverse backgrounds. Being part of this wave of change, I hope to convey the message that the concert hall is a welcoming space for everyone.” 


Not only is James opening this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival, he also has a piece being premiered at this year’s BBC Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, postponed from last year. He tells me about the inspiration for his “1922”, the year in which the BBC came into existence.


“My commission for the Proms, is about a moment of innovation, which altered the way we access culture, news and information. That first BBC broadcast 101 years ago started a whirlwind of change. Today, with the universality of technology and social media, we share our experiences and are part of an all-encompassing broadcasting culture.  


“After the Queen's death in 2022, the Last Night Of The Proms was postponed and 1922 was put on ice, and yet, the delay has made the message of the piece all the more vital. This year, the recent threat to BBC Singers’ and orchestras’ existence has thrown the importance of the Proms and BBC broadcasting into even sharper relief. I hope the piece will continue the conversation about why our artistic heritage and vital arts institutions are worth cherishing; our lives just would not be the same without them! I am thrilled it has been moved to this year's festivities.”


*The CBSO perform at Cheltenham Town Hall on Saturday July 8 at 7pm.

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