Woolrich curates Kings Place concerts

Woolrich curates Kings Place concerts
There’s a field in the French Pyrenees which will remain forever England – it’s where John Woolrich goes to compose his intricate and richly allusive music. Nick Kimberley met the creative dynamo to discuss the series he’s curated for Kings Place in June 2011.
'No-one could call John Woolrich an ivory tower composer. In fact, he composes ‘in the middle of a field in France’, in the house that he moved to recently. With its views of the Pyrenees, his new home provides ‘not just a physical, but also a psychological space’. That space is valuable to him, which is not to say that he is disengaged from the hurly-burly of British musical life. Far from it. He lives what might be called a life of three halves: he composes; and like many composers, he also teaches. Beyond that, he occupies a position somewhere between eminence grise and agent provocateur. Back in the 1980s, he co-founded the Composers Ensemble; in the 1990s he set up Hoxton New Music Days; and from 2003 until last year he was artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival. Now he is artistic director of Dartington International Summer School while still acting as adviser to Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Britten Sinfonia.
It may seem surprising that Woolrich finds any time to compose, but his work catalogue is extensive, and he brings only a fraction of it to Kings Place. The three concerts are gathered under the heading ‘John Woolrich & Friends’. First and foremost among those friends, perhaps, are the musicians, without whom no performance takes place. Woolrich enjoys working closely with performers, and the feeling is mutual: ‘When I look back over my catalogue, most of my commissions have come, one way or another, from players, which is quite flattering. It suggests that people who’ve played my music have thought, “That piece was quite nice, I’d like another piece”. For these concerts, I wanted to invite ensembles that I’ve worked with down the years and with whom I have a relationship. 
I think I’ve ended up with a really exciting set of musicians. London Sinfonietta is obviously resident at Kings Place, but the Scottish Ensemble and Britten Sinfonia have never played here before; they’re both extraordinary groups of musicians and I wanted to give them a platform in Kings Place’s incomparable Hall One’.
The ‘friends’ whom this series celebrates also include composers, both living (of which more later) and dead. For Woolrich, certain composers of the past are living presences, to the extent that they almost become active collaborators. His close entanglement with the past is embodied in the earliest of his works to be performed: Ulysses Awakes, dating from 1989, is a treatment of an aria from Claudio Monteverdi’s 1640 opera The Return of Ulysses. 
Woolrich gives the vocal line to viola, in the process absorbing Monteverdi’s sound-world into his own. Something similar happens in his treatment of songs by Hugo Wolf, in which the vocal line is transferred to strings.
Such processes typify Woolrich’s aesthetic; as he explains, ‘The Italian composer Luciano Berio said that there was no such thing as a tabula rasa in music; every piece is written in some kind of relationship to all other music. 
‘I’m with him on that. I love the idea of working with other composers’ material, of forming a relationship with someone who’s been dead for perhaps centuries, in the process taking a familiar object and slightly changing it so as to cast new light from a different perspective.’
Not every piece of Woolrich’s works this way, but his love of the musical past underpins everything he composes. His three concerts barely scratch the surface of his enthusiasms; as he says, ‘I could never do Desert Island Discs because I wouldn’t know how to reduce the music I love to just eight pieces. What I’ve done is select pieces of my own that feel resilient, and then fitted other repertoire around them.’
So it is with Woolrich’s A Presence of Departed Acts, commissioned to celebrate the 65th birthday of the economist and Nobel laureate James Mirrlees. It was expressly written for the same instruments (clarinet, cello, violin, piano) used by Oliver Messiaen in his Quartet for the End of Time, a work premiered in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1941. It makes perfect sense, then, to juxtapose the two pieces; in any case, Woolrich says, ‘Messiaen’s quartet always makes an occasion special. I heard it a few years ago in a tiny village in Germany. I sensed that the audience didn’t know it, but at the end they were in tears.’
Similarly, Woolrich’s piano trio The Night will not draw on was written for Haydn’s bi-centenary in 2009 and inspired by ETA Hoffman’s description of Haydn’s life-enhancing music as ‘A world of eternal youth, as though before The Fall; no suffering, no pain; only sweet melancholy longing for the beloved vision floating off in the red glow of evening… as long as it is there, the night with not draw on.’
If all this suggests that Woolrich has his head buried in the past, nothing could be further from the truth. His selection of composers also include Thomas Adès and Tansy Davies, whose work could only have been written today: ‘I commissioned Tom’s Court Studies for the Composers Ensemble.  It’s a set of musical portraits in characters in his opera The Tempest, and the more I hear it, the better it gets. It closes with a passacaglia that shrinks as it nears the end, finishing up with solo violin, an extraordinary image of melancholy and loneliness. As for Tansy, when she was a teenager she played in rock bands; often in her music you can hear that she likes Xenakis but you can also hear that she likes Prince. I’m sometimes skeptical about that sort of synthesis, but Tansy’s seems to be a sophisticated, grown-up way of doing it.’
It is a long journey from Monteverdi to Prince, but John Woolrich has mapped out a fascinating route. For those willing to follow him, there is no livelier guide.'
Kings Place Magazine (Nick Kimberley), May 2011
Full listings of these concerts are on the Kings Place website