John Woolrich and Friends at Kings Place

Written by: Nick Breckenfield

Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K546
Ulysses Awakes
Wolf arr Woolrich
Italian Songs [I was told you were journeying far away; My lover is singing outside the house in the moonlight; What kind of song should be sung to you?; Well I know; I can sing no longer; Do be quiet; How much time I lost in loving you!]
Schubert arr. Mahler
String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden)

Scottish Ensemble [Cheryl Crockett, Liza Johnson Trstan Gurney, Xander Van Vliet, Justine Watts, James Toll (violins), Catherine Marwood, Andrew Berridge (violas), Alison Lawrance, Naomi Boole-Masterson (cellos), Diane Clark (double bass)]

Director and violin – Jonathan Morton

The Night will not draw on
Shiva Feshareki
arriving in peace, departing with love [world premiere]
Tansy Davies
Tymbal Organ [world premiere]
A Presence of Departed Acts
The Tempest – Court Studies
Quartet for the End of Time

London Sinfonietta [Mark van de Wiel (clarinet), Alexandra Wood (violin), Timothy Gill (cello), John Constable (piano)]

Richard Strauss
Capriccio – Prelude
Oboe Quartet in F, K370
Verklärte Nacht, Op.4

Britten Sinfonia [Christopher Cowie (oboe, cor anglais) Thomas Gould, Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore, Catherine Musker (violas), Caroline Dearnley, Ben Chappell (cellos)]

Hall One, Kings Place, 90 York Way, King’s Cross, London
30 June, 1 & 2 July 2011

Three ensembles came together this week at Kings Place to celebrate the music of John Woolrich. Given Woolrich’s extensive catalogue, commissioned for many ensembles, the festivities could equally have welcomed the Academy of Ancient Music, the Orchestra of St John’s, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, his own Composers Ensemble and the Schubert Ensemble, but here we started with the Scottish Ensemble, followed on consecutive nights first by members of the London Sinfonietta and, finally, the Britten Sinfonia – hence, Woolrich and Friends.

Each programme was devised by Woolrich. He is a master at programming, having masterminded festivals in Hoxton and at the Almeida Theatre, and worked alongside both Thomas Adès and Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the Aldeburgh Festival as associate artistic director until last year. He is now artistic director of the Dartington International Summer School, and has always displayed the widest range of musical tastes, a fact evident in much of his music.

Woolrich is the complete antithesis to someone like Philip Glass (who admitted he never heard the music of others because his concerts were always just of his own music), in that he allows his music to be heard in context. And his music fits in perfectly with the likes of Mozart and Schubert, just as much as it does with fellow contemporaries and modernist classics. Typical too that he programmes new works by others. On paper, then, this looked like a gem of a series and, with the Kings Place debuts of both the Scottish Ensemble and Britten Sinfonia to boot (this is the home of the London Sinfonietta), this proved to be a perfect summer mini-series.

I was fascinated by the printed programmes for these concerts. Simply done – A3 folded twice – with a photo of Kings Place and house notes on the outside, with the inside left for the programme, biographies of the ensembles and the shortest notes I think I have ever seen. So short that one would not find out that Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was composed in a concentration camp and premiered there, which gives the context to the quote given that Messiaen’s intent was: “to articulate my desire for the dissolution of time”. Woolrich’s own A Presence of Departed Acts fared better, but again one had to look elsewhere to know that it was commissioned for the 65th-birthday of Nobel laureate James Mirrlees and was expressly composed for the same forces as the Messiaen. Thankfully, Woolrich’s publishers Faber & Faber have a specially-commissioned interview in which Woolrich explains to Nick Kimberley the background to the season, reprinting an article from Kings Place magazine.

Each concert did have introductions of sorts (one completely unscripted), starting with Jonathan Morton of the Scottish Ensemble warning us not to applaud between Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue and Woolrich’s Ulysses Awakes as they were going to segue from one to the other, with solo violist Catherine Marwood stepping forward to centre-stage for the Woolrich, where her viola takes Ulysses’s first great aria from Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria. This was a work originally commissioned by Dartington Summer School, where Woolrich is now artistic director, and has found a place in the canon as classic Woolrich, the viola’s dark assumption of the original vocal line, evocatively supported by string ensemble catching Mozart’s mood and making a very satisfying pairing.

Woolrich’s historical awareness moved forward over a century from Mozart and 250 years from Monteverdi to late romantic Hugo Wolf, for seven Italian Songs he ‘instrumented’ for strings, as a birthday present for the Scottish Ensemble. The chosen songs, nicely contrasted in mood, seen in their titles to tell the arc of a love affair from ardent outpourings to cooling feelings, tetchiness (Morton’s favourite title Do be quiet) and, finally, recrimination. Each of the sections of the Scottish Ensemble added their own nuance of colour to this delightful adaptation.

More capriciousness followed in the reprise of Woolrich’s 2009 BBC Proms commission for the Scottish Ensemble, first heard at Cadogan Hall, Capriccio. A master of short, multi-sectional pieces which essay various moods, this takes the form of a miniature violin concerto, and introduced the plucked string to the soundworld, with some sections deliciously pizzicato heavy, before a typically ghostly coda.

After the interval and the drawing back of the hall’s curtain, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet, as ‘instrumented’ by Mahler, revelled in the greater resonance that the uppermost bare walls, now revealed, afforded its sound, even with what might be regarded as Mahler’s too-judicious expansion for double bass. With, as in the first half, violins and violas standing, Morton led an urgent reading of the expanded quartet, notable for its unison of phrasing and helter-skelter finale.

The second concert, on Friday night, was – bar the concluding Messiaen – as up to date as one could wish for: a 21st-century survey, including two world premieres. Those two new works had titles that were unexplained; although clarinettist Mark van der Wiel did an impromptu introduction to Shiva Feshareki’s arriving in peace, departing with love for solo clarinet. Composed as part of the Sinfonietta’s Writing the Future scheme, Feshareki was meant to have been mentored by both Wiel (as performer) and Tansy Davies (as composer), but simply turned up with the fully-written piece, which Wiel revealed started like a series of sneezes. He wondered if his mentioning that to the composer had given her a cold which, unfortunately, meant she could not be there, but I am sure she would have liked the performance, virtuosic in extreme, but settling, in the second contrasting section into longer-breathed musings.

Tansy Davies’s new piece seemed to belie her rock background and the programme note’s suggested influence of Prince, by being a much more subtle dialogue for violin and cello than we might have expected, eloquent and involving. Unfortunately I am at a loss to explain its title Tymbal Organ, unless there is some reference to the delicacy of an eardrum? I hope future listenings will unveil the truth.

Thomas Adès’s Court Dances from The Tempest, ending the first half, were commissioned for Woolrich’s Composers Ensemble and form six, rather dense, character studies of the shipwrecked court drawn to Prospero’s island for his revenge. I did not care for Adès’s Shakespearean adaptation at all, and – more’s the pity – these Court Studies did not change my mind.

There can be no Woolrich piece that has not been influenced by what has gone before, and his 2009 commission from the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt looked back to Haydn, as seen through author ETA Hoffmann, in his description of Haydn’s music, referring to “no suffering, no pain; only sweet melancholy longing”, in the presence of which “The Night will not draw on”. This opened the London Sinfonietta’s concert setting the scene for what music can do, and the penultimate spot in the first half returned us to Woolrich for his Nobel laureate-inspired piece A Presence of Departed Acts, where – as Christopher Austin’s slightly more detailed note here suggested – Woolrich’s references in the piece were to the eleven piano chords with which the piece opens, and come back in various combinations. There is definitely a Messiaenic feel to those chords, and their returns seem to ebb and flow as if determined by some musical half-life.

That distinctive same combination of instruments – the only ones available to Messiaen in his concentration camp – led to the extraordinary Quartet for the End of Time, here a touch prosaically presented with only the solo movements achieving the sense of otherworldly raptness one cherishes from the very best, but it did not seriously adversely affect the concert as a whole.

Another night, another ensemble, again debutants at Kings Place, although first violinist Thomas Gould is a regular with in-house band the Aurora Orchestra. Opening and closing with two masterpiece string sextets, Strauss’s prelude to Capriccio and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. They were winningly played, with a rapt intensity that larger ensembles (in the Schoenberg) can never properly achieve.

In between there was Mozart’s F major Oboe Quartet. Christopher Cowie apologised at the end of the first movement for some clogged pipe work and nipped off to rectify matters, in time to play the Adagio faultlessly, followed by Mozart’s buoyant final rondo. Preceding the Schoenberg in the second half was Woolrich’s curiously titled Quiddities (note, Harry Potter fans, not Quiditches), although the notes suggested this piece could also have been called Lake Greifen after Robert Walser, whose story imagines, after a swim in a small, hidden lake under a starscape.

Woolrich’s strength is his ability to contrast moods within a short piece. It did not outstay its welcome, indeed, it would have been nice to have heard it immediately again, and could hold its head up high in the company of Strauss, Mozart and Schoenberg. One can only hope that more of Woolrich’s friends can be encouraged to appear at Kings Place for a second series.

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