John Woolrich 50th-Birthday Concert – QEH (19 January)

Part One

The Marriage of Figaro – Overture
Suite No.1
Three Songs from The Book of Disquiet [world première]
Souvenirs de mon enfance
Suite No.2

Part Two

Don Giovanni – Overture
Piccola musica notturna
Ophelia Songs
Two Sacred Songs
Viola Concerto

Christine Cairns (mezzo-soprano)

Jane Atkins (viola)

OSJ (Orchestra of St John’s)
John Lubbock

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 19 January, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

In typical exquisite style, John Woolrich’s 50th-birthday (slightly earlier in January) was celebrated by the orchestra with which he has been closely associated in recent years, not once but twice it’s Associate Composer (the second stint now coming to an end, with the orchestra bestowing on him the title ’Composer Emeritus’), the Orchestra of St John’s – or, as we should now call it, OSJ – and it’s founder-conductor John Lubbock.

Woolrich has contributed some 15 works to OSJ over the years, and the ensemble gave a world première at this concert, with mezzo Christine Cairns the soloist in three songs from The Book of Disquiet. Again typically, this “celebration of the music behind the man” was not an all-Woolrich affair. His breadth of knowledge and his own view that contemporary composition is as a continuing, living, tradition from past music, was conjured up by a specially devised programme which also included music by Mozart, Stravinsky, Dallapiccola, Brahms and Wolf.Each half opened with a Mozart Overture; the first, Marriage of Figaro, leading to works with a sunny disposition; the second, Don Giovanni, leading to much darker works.

In fact, Woolrich’s new work, based on Fernando Pessoa’s “fragments” – (the sensation of slight things), A letter not to post and Clouds) scored for a darkly sonorous string ensemble – was perhaps at odds with the early Stravinsky lullabies, each named after birds (Magpie, Rook and Jackdaw) and the buoyant frivolity of his two little suites, but the second half worked a treat, with Don Giovanni leading to the majesty of Dallapicolla’s nocturnal imagination and the second group of songs to Woolrich’s grave Viola Concerto.

The Piccola musica notturna (a world away from Mozart’s effortless serenade) celebrated Dallapiccola’s centenary (he was born on 3 February) and also the 50th-anniversary of the piece. Brahms’s Ophelia Songs, to which he added spare piano accompaniment, were heard in Woolrich’s sombre arrangement for two clarinets, viola, cello and double bass, taking on the quality of an organ rather than emulating the piano. Stravinsky’s larger-ensemble adaptations of the two Wolf songs – Herr, was trägt der Boden hier and Wunden träst du Geliebter – were the product of his late years, after he had given up original composition. Composed in 1968 Stravinsky told Robert Craft that he had “wanted to say something about death and felt he could not compose anything of his own.”

Leading into the sinewy lines of Woolrich’s Viola Concerto this had me thinking of the viola as Charon, rowing over the Styx with the subtle references to a shared musical past – from Monteverdi to Wagner – a review of one’s life. Memorable and, in Jane Atkins’s secure hands, mesmeric; this was an engrossing end to an evening that added up to so much more than its individual parts.

Christine Cairns’s vocal contribution was as eloquent and exemplary as Atkins’s, and both Lubbock and the OSJ’s commitment were heart-warming. The programme not only set Woolrich in context with other composers, but also highlighted his interest in song and the use of words. A great birthday tribute to a composer always worth hearing.

His next work is a Young Person’s Guide (for even younger persons) for the new Sage Hall in Gateshead. Black Box has just re-released the OSJ’s 1990s recording of five of Woolrich’s work as well as a new recording of chamber works recorded by the Schubert Ensemble. A further birthday tribute takes place at the Purcell Room on 9 February, with the Schubert Ensemble. Don’t miss!

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