John Woolrich has a practical approach to music making—he founded a group (the Composers Ensemble), a festival (Hoxton New Music Days) and has been composer in association with both the Orchestra of St Johns' and the Britten Sinfonia. His successful collaborations with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group led to his appointment in 2002 as Artist-in-Association. He was guest Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival in 2004 and Associate Artistic Director of the festival from 2005 to 2010. From 2010 to 2013 Woolrich was both Artistic Director of Dartington International Summer School and Professor of Music at Brunel University.
A number of preoccupations thread through his music: the art of creative transcription- Ulysses Awakes, for instance, is a re-composition of a Monteverdi aria, and The Theatre Represents a Garden: Night 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 orchestral commissions, which resulted in some of his most significant 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 'Record of the Week' on BBC Radio 3 Other orchestral pieces written during this period include The Ghost in the Machine, premiered in Japan by Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Si Va Facendo Notte which the Barbican Centre commissioned to celebrate the Mozart European Journey Project.
Recent pieces include Capriccio for violin and strings, commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble for the 2009 Proms, Between the Hammer and the Anvil, for the London Sinfonietta, a violin concerto, for Carolin Widmann and the Northern Sinfonia, and Falling Down, a double bassoon concerto for Margaret Cookhorn and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
Before studying composition, John Woolrich studied English at university. That's important. Not because it means Woolrich is a composer who reads books and knows about things other than music, which he does, but because it suggests he began as something of a musical outsider.
The idea of Woolrich as an outsider now seems unimaginable. There are few more widely admired and liked figures in the world of 'new music'. His contacts are oceanic. He has founded ensembles- the Composers Ensemble - and commissioned new works for them assiduously; he is a generous and respected educator; he organises distinguished and original concert series- the Hoxton New Music days, now Almeida Opera Concerts. But as an artist he maintains the outsider's distance, cultivates a critical mind, and always looks for new perspectives.
What kind of music does he write? Surprisingly perhaps, for someone with his love of the modernist tradition, it is not hard. There are acerbities and abrasions - flatulent trombones, sawn-off oxygen cylinders, flutes that aggress as readily as seduce - but the attitude is benevolent. We find our way around. Musical sections and paragraphs are punctuated for our benefit. Other composers may not hold themselves responsible for the 'concentration problems' of their audiences but Woolrich does.
There's a wonderful moment in the Viola Concerto where the music makes reference, as Woolrich notes, proudly perhaps, 'to the ghost of Schumann's allusion to Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte' from Schumann's Fantasy Op.17. It's about as refined a chain of reference as you can imagine, and just the right side of a joke. Woolrich's music is always intensely cultured. A work needn't descend, he says- and his never does- 'to soap opera to gain access to universal emotions'. From Monteverdi to Mozart, Corelli to Tippett, Berio and Birtwistle, the Great Tradition imposes itself.
Is he then a post-modernist, playing games with his allusions and re-creations? Ulysses Awakes, a wonderfully elegiac string piece from the late 1980s based on the music of Monteverdi, was copper-bottomed neo-classical re-creation, and a continuing success. The Viola Concerto, with its references to Wagner, Schumann and Mozart and its stories of love and parting, was sublimely traditional- and original- myth-making. Another anniversary tribute- Arcangelo, to commemorate Arcangelo Corelli, shows Woolrich removing himself further still from the post-modern aesthetic, revelling not in Corelli's glorious sonorous surface but his structural depths. It was the shape of the concerto grosso- 'a shaggy-dog story without the Beethoven punch-line'- that interested Woolrich, not its effects.
If Woolrich's musical personality is shy, maybe we should look for its essence in the fleeting statements of the Pianobooks, or the intense and private chamber works. But in the end those pictures tell only half the story. The full picture- of an artist grappling with private imperatives and public responsibilities- was provided by the Oboe Concerto, premiered at the Proms in 1996. The questions raised by that piece- how to be convincingly personal in public, how to find and project a voice- are at the heart of Woolrich's music, and they are ones to which Woolrich finds answers as cogent as any composer working today.
c.Dermot Clinch, 2003