In January 2024 John Woolrich celebrates his 70th birthday. A figure central to British musical life, the acclaimed composer has worked with the world’s leading musicians and ensembles. As co-founder of the Composers Ensemble with Mary Wiegold, Woolrich has been the presence behind hundreds of premieres. He was Guest Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival in 2004 and Associate Artistic Director of the festival 2005–2010 and has also been Artistic Director of the Dartington International Summer School.

Since 2019 Woolrich has been Artistic Director of the Folkestone New Music series. Plans for 2024 include a performance of Woolrich’s The Kingdom of Dreams from Nicholas Daniel – for whom Woolrich composed his Oboe Concerto (1996), and an intensive focus on the composer in July. It will include selections from Woolrich’s Pianobooks from Huw Watkins, Woolrich’s songs in recital from Rosie Middleton and Kat Tinker, several of Woolrich’s chamber works from Chamber Domaine, including Dramolet, Sestina, and A Presence of Departed Acts, as well as two quartets from Woolrich's Book of Inventions from the Salomé String Quartet – full details to be announced in 2024 here.

In April 2024 Thomas Adès will conduct Woolrich’s The Theatre Represents a Garden: Night – a “necklace of fragments” based on Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro – with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The 15-minute piece was recently performed on 22 November by the Southbank Sinfonia at St. John’s Waterloo. The 15-minute piece  draws on Mozart for its material, principally unfinished pieces and sketches, including music for wind band, string ensemble, and piano.

Adès, through his involvement with the Composers Ensemble and beyond, has been a longstanding champion of Woolrich’s music. In 2000 he premiered Woolrich’s three-act Masque Bitter Fruit – for mimes, masks, musicians and puppets - with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Trestle Theatre. He also premiere the Suite created from the piece with the London Sinfonietta in 2003. In 2017 Adès performed Woolrich’s The Turkish Mouse (1988) as part of his ‘Thomas Adès and Friends’ programme at Carnegie Hall, where he was joined by soprano Sally Matthews; he has also given numerous performances of Woolrich’s Pianobooks. As conductor he has led performances of Woolrich’s ensemble works including Caprichos, It is midnight, Dr Schweitzer (1992), and From the Shadow (1994). The latter, a 7-minute set of five miniatures for 11 players, is a particular testament to Woolrich’s love of a host of modernists from across the arts, inspired by Jean Tinguely, the Bugatti brothers, W.H. Auden, and Paul Klee.  

Woolrich’s latest piece is Favola in Musica III, a trio for flute, viola, and harp, which premiered at the Leicester International Music Festival on 9 November with the Pelléas Ensemble. The piece reflects his longstanding preoccupations as a composer: fragments, transcription, quotation, and the music of Monteverdi. It is his third ‘Fable in Music’, each derived from Monteverdi’s madrigal O Sia tranquillo il Mare – the first version, from 1990, was for oboe, clarinet, and piano, and premiered at the Cheltenham International Festival with Nicholas Daniel, Julius Drake, and Joy Farrall; the second (1992) is scored for oboe, alto saxophone, and percussion.

The 8-minute work transcribes and reworks material from the madrigal, as well as peppering it with other fragments. Woolrich writes of the piece,

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.

When I was writing the original version of this piece (for Nicholas Daniel) 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. I made this version of Favola in Musica for the Pelléas Ensemble this spring at Nicholas Daniel’s prompting.

In March 2023 the Aris Quartett premiered another evocation of Ulysses: Another Journey Calls. It is the latest instalment in Woorich’s expansive five-volume cycle of 25 string quartets A Book of Inventions, premiered by ensembles including the Ruisi, Bozzini, Benyounes, Sacconi, Ligeti, and Brodsky quartets; several selections have been filmed. In 2021 12 artists - Marianela Orozco, Mick Williamson, Jane Bustin, the Brothers Quay, Tim Hopkins, Ash McNaughton, Diane Dever, Terry Smith, Chelsey Browne, Oote Boe and Gayle Chong Kwan – created video responses to various quartets in the cycle, which are available to view here.