This month, John Woolrich and his music for oboe are featured in the Journal. Over several decades, John has composed a number of works featuring the oboe including the notable Oboe Concerto which was premiered in the BBC Proms during the mid 1990s.

From Book of Disquiet

Instrumentation: Alto, Oboe and Viols (or strings)

Duration: 17′

Premiere: 6 February  2005, Chelmsford Civic Centre, Chelmsford, UK: Michael Chance/Nicholas Daniel/Britten Sinfonia

When the writer Fernando Pessoa died in in Lisbon in 1935, he left behind a large trunk full of poetry, horoscopes, unfinished stories, essays, plays, translations, letters and journals, typed, handwritten or scrawled in Portuguese, English and French. He wrote on the backs of letters, on handbills, envelopes and scraps of paper. He described ‘The Book of Disquiet’ as ‘fragments, fragments, fragments’.
In the spirit of Pessoa, I have made a loose-leaf collection of short pieces: three for strings (Three Fantasias), three for solo oboe (Three Capriccios), three for alto voice and strings (Three Songs) and three for oboe with strings (Three Arias). The songs are settings of texts by Pessoa and the fantasias and arias have titles drawn from ‘The Book of Disquiet’. The performers can make their own selection and order.

© John Woolrich

Three Arias (From Book of Disquiet)

Instrumentation: Oboe and Strings or Oboe and 6 Viols

Duration: 4′

See programme note for ‘From Book of Disquiet’

© John Woolrich

Three Capriccios (From Book of Disquiet)

Instrumentation: Solo Oboe

Duration: 20′

Premiere: 2 November 2001. St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, East Sussex, UK: Nicholas Daniel.

See programme note for ‘From Book of Disquiet’

© John Woolrich

The Lost Day of Return

Instrumentation: Solo Oboe and chamber ensemble of 11 players

Duration: 10′

Premiere: 11 June 2004: Sheringham, Norfolk: Nicholas Daniel/Britten Sinfonia.

Leaving Home

Instrumentation: Oboe and String Quartet

Duration: 14′

Premiere: 10 September 2003. Kaiserberg, Nuremburg, Germany: David Fresquet (ob)/Fiona McCapra (vln)/Jan Peter Schmolk (vln)/Judith Busbridge (vla)/Adrian Bradbury (vlc). Commissioned by the Nuremberg International Chamber Music Festival

A Litany

Instrumentation: Oboe and string orchestra

Duration: 15′

Premiere: 29 January 2000, St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich: Britten Sinfonia/Nicholas Daniel

A Litany is a transcription and recomposition of an oboe quintet which I wrote for Nicholas Daniel to play at the Leicester Festival in 1998. It lasts about quarter of an hour and is a mosaic of a couple of dozen very short pieces: laments, midnight chimes, chorales, nocturnes, fragments and echoes. It is music of darkness and stillness, sometimes on the edge of silence.

© John Woolrich

Oboe Quintet

Instrumentation: Oboe quintet

Duration: 20′

Premiere: 20 June 1998, Leicester International Music Festival, New Walk Museum: Nicholas Daniel/Festival Ensemble. Commissioned by Leicester International Music Festival with support from East Midlands Arts and Leicester City Council.

My oboe quintet is about 20 minutes long. Structurally it’s a bit like a book of short poems (27 in all), which form a network of laments, chorales, nocturnes, fragments and echos. It is music of ticking clocks, whispering quiet keening, midnight, stillness and darkness. Oboe Quintet was commissioned by Leicester International Music Festival with support from East Midlands Arts and Leicester City Council and is dedicated to Nick Daniel.

© John Woolrich

Oboe Concerto

Instrumentation: Oboe and orchestra

Duration: 26′

Premiere: 14 August 1996, BBC Promenade Concert, Royal Albert Hall, London: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Daniel/Matthias Bamert

The Oboe Concerto was commissioned by the BBC for the 1996 BBC Proms. The first performance was given by Nicholas Daniel and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Matthias Bamert in the Royal Albert Hall, London on 14 August 1996. All concertos are built from a mismatch of forces: the individual against the crowd, solo against tutti. Many composers have intensified this discrepancy by banishing the solo instrument from the orchestra, so that the colour of the solo and the tutti are as different as possible. In this concerto, rather than isolating the oboe, I have filled the orchestra with the mournful noise of its singing: the soloist is surrounded, figuratively in the music and literally on the stage, by the attendant group of three oboes and their more extravert second cousin, the soprano saxophone. But the oppositions are still there – the drama and the poetry of the work flow from the contrast between the fragile keening of the oboe and the brutal power of a large symphony orchestra.

© John Woolrich

Click here to buy the sheet music

Click here to buy the recording

My Box of Phantoms

Instrumentation: Oboe quartet

Duration: 5′

Premiere: 30 April 1995, Jackson’s Lane Arts Centre, Highgate, London:Melinda Maxwell/Composer’s Ensemble

I wrote My box of Phantoms for Melinda Maxwell to play with the Composers Ensemble. There are four short movements marked 1. My box of Phantoms 2. My Blue Peninsula 3. Promise and unfoldment 4. An image for 2 Emilies The titles are from Emily Dickinson and Joseph Cornell and the musical ghosts are Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart.

© John Woolrich

Favola in Musica I

Instrumentation: Oboe, Clarinet and Piano

Duration: 8′

Premiere: 1990. Cheltenham International Festival, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham: Nicholas Daniel/Julius Drake/Joy Farrall

This ‘fable in music’ is a retelling of Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigal for two voices ‘O sia tranquillo il mare’. Whether the sea is calm or rough, says the poet, he will remain waiting for his love to return. But there is no sign of her and his laments are carried away on the winds: “Never, never shall I leave here.” I have planted a number of other allusions to the sea, melancholy and separation: Dorabella and Fiordiligi invoke calm winds for their lovers’ sea journey in ‘Cosi’, Monteverdi’s Penelope waits for Ulysses, and there is an echo of Tristan’s castle in Brittany. In May 1990 while I was writing this work another great Venetian composer, Luigi Nono, died. Like Monteverdi he wrote music haunted by death and the sea. I have woven a thread of Nono’s music through this lament. ‘Favola in Musica’ was commissioned by Nicholas Daniel and Joy Farrall and first performed by them at the 1990 Cheltenham Festival.

© John Woolrich

The Kingdom of Dreams

Instrumentation: Oboe and Piano

Duration: 9′

Premiere: 7 July 1989, Cheltenham Festival, Pittville Pump Room:Nicholas Daniel/Julius Drake

A number of different inspirations float in and out of focus in this piece in a dream-like way. I started with the animals Nick Daniel uses as a theme in many of his concerts and moved, by association, to the dream animals of the Swiss painter Paul Klee. Two more Klee paintings – ‘The Bavarian Don Giovanni’ and ‘Tale à la Hoffmann’ – evoked both ETA Hoffmann’s fantasy world and that of his favourite composer. The ghosts of several of the stranger moments from Mozart’s dark opera glide past in the inner movements.

© John Woolrich

James-Turnbull-Fierce-Tears-340x340

Click here to buy the sheet music

Click here to buy the recording

The Turkish Mouse

Instrumentation: Oboe and Piano

Duration: 4′

Premiere: 13 May 1989, Brighton Festival: Nicholas Daniel/Julius Drake

© John Woolrich

James-Turnbull-Fierce-Tears-340x340

Click here to buy the sheet music

Click here to buy the recording

About John Woolrich

John Woolrich was born in 1954 in Cirencester. A much commissioned and frequently performed composer, a creative teacher and an original programmer, he is an important figure in British musical life.

Woolrich has a practical approach to music making: he has founded a group, the Composers Ensemble, and a festival, Hoxton New Music Days.  In 1994 he was appointed the first Composer in Association to the Orchestra of St John’s, a post he held until 2000. His successful collaborations with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group led to his appointment in the 2002/3 season as an Artistic Associate. He was Guest Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival in 2004 and Associate Artistic Director of the festival 2005–10.  From 2010-13 Woolrich was Artistic Director at Dartington International Summer School, and Professor of Music at Brunel University.

A number of preoccupations thread through his varied output: the art of creative transcription (Ulysses Awakes, for instance, is a re-composition of a Monteverdi aria, and The Theatre Represents a Garden: Night – a work for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – is based on fragments of Mozart), and a fascination with machinery and mechanical processes (heard in many pieces including The Ghost in the Machine and The Barber’s Timepiece).

Throughout the 1990s, Woolrich had a string of prestigious orchestral commissions which resulted in some of his most important works: his concertos for viola, oboe and cello.  A CD of the viola and oboe concertos on the NMC label attracted particular attention and was acclaimed as the BBC’s ‘Record of the Week’.  Other orchestral pieces written during this period includeThe Ghost in the Machine (1990), premiered in Japan with Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Si Va Facendo Notte which the Barbican Centre commissioned to celebrate the Mozart European Journey Project.  In 2001, Woolrich undertook a music theatre commission from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Trestle Theatre Company which resulted in Bitter Fruit, a masque for mime actors and ensemble.

More recent pieces include Capriccio for violin and strings commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble,  Between the Hammer and the Anvil  for the London Sinfonietta, a Violin Concerto for the Northern Sinfonia featuring Carolin Widmann and Falling Down, a double-bassoon concerto commission by the Feeney Trust for the CBSO and Margaret Cookhorn.

John Woolrich’s 60th birthday in 2014 was celebrated by many organisations – including the CBSO, Britten Sinfonia, London Sinfonietta, BCMG, Schubert Ensemble, London Contemporary Orchestra and St John’s Smith Square (which held a ‘Woolrich Day’). He was also commissioned to write new works for the 2014 Cheltenham Festival and Dartington International Summer School.

http://johnwoolrich.com

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