Andrew Burn, head of projects at the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and writer on 20/21st Cenury music, writes:
Stephen McNeff: Composer in Residence
“Residencies as one focal point of a festival provide valuable opportunities for the creative artist and audiences alike. For the latter there’s the chance to hear a range of work within a concentrated span of time, as well as to meet and engage with the creator, in this instance a composer, and to gleam what makes them ‘tick’. From the artist’s perspective, it provides a moment to take stock, and invariably the exciting invitation to create something new, because no residency would be complete without a premiere!
Of his work, Stephen McNeff, this year’s resident composer at Presteigne, has said, ‘My music is always written for someone. I want it to talk to people, to move them and give them pleasure, possibly insight. Composers sometimes forget that they are also perhaps part of the entertainment business – or at should at least attempt, as Sir Philip Sydney wrote of poetry, to “teach and delight’’ ‘. It’s a pithy artistic creed, but telling too, providing the first clue to McNeff’s music, since had he been alive a couple of centuries ago in Europe, it’s likely that he would have had a highly successful career as an inventive and resourceful Kapellmeister, such is his practical approach to composing.
This natural flair is exemplified in the range of his works to be heard during the festival: The Song of Amergin (2006) was written for the amateur forces of the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, whilst Four Songs of the Virgin of Guadeloupe (2001) and Madrigali dell’estate (2009) were composed expressly for the artistry and voices of Patricia Rozario and Claire McCaldin respectively. McNeff’s flair for lyrical melodic invention is apparent in all these works, as well as in his new Oboe Concerto, and the other ever present quality in his music, a sense of drama and theatre, is forcefully displayed in his recently completed music theatre work, Prometheus Drowned (2014).
Although born in Belfast in 1951, McNeff grew up in South Wales, where an inspirational teacher awoke his interest in music. After studying composition at the Royal Academy of Music, his career started by working in theatres throughout Britain, followed by a period in Canada where his posts included composer-in-residence at the Banff Centre. Recognition has come steadily; at the turn of the Millennium, McNeff’s name would be known mainly in theatre circles through his film noir operatic version of The Wasteland (1994), his work for the Unicorn Theatre (including his highly successful scores for adaptations of the Beatrix Potter tales), or among wind band fraternities for Ghosts (2001). However, from the première of his opera for young people Clockwork in 2004, based on Philip Pullman’s book, at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, and his appointment the following year to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as the first Royal Philharmonic Society/Performing Right Society Foundation Composer in the House, his reputation has gone from strength to strength.
McNeff’s theatrical work has continued to flourish with the operas Gentle Giant (2007), commissioned by the Royal Opera, and Tarka the Otter (2005-6) which won a coveted British Composer Award for Best Stage Work in 2007. His orchestration for smaller forces of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (2009) received plaudits galore and his opera-oratorio The Chalk Legend, composed for Kokoro, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary music ensemble and community music forces, to mark the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad in Dorset, was recognised as a tour-de-force at its premiere performances in Portland and London. Also in 2012 The Secret Garden (1985, rev 2012) was revived in a critically praised new production in London by Trinity Laban and in Canada by the Banff Festival.
Other notable works include ConcertO Duo (2010), premiered at the 80th birthday concert of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2010, and a work for dance, Seven for a Secret (based on the music of Ravel) (2011) premiered by Rambert Dance the following year. Last year the premiere of Vivienne (2013) took place at the Riverside in Hammersmith, a one-women opera in a series of songs for Clare McCaldin about T S Eliot’s first ‘mad’ wife, and his Concerto for Flute and Wind Orchestra (2013-14) received its London première in April. Next month, his new version of Carmen, reimagined for an ensemble of ten players, will be premiered by Mid Wales Opera.
Looking further ahead, McNeff has plenty of works on the stocks including The Walking Shadows, to be premiered next year by Polyphony and the City of London Sinfonia , conducted by Stephen Layton, which in response to the First World War sets texts based on the letters and writings of civilians and service people. In 2016 there will be a new opera on the subject of the transportation of women to Australia with performances planned in London and Sydney.
If your appetite is whetted by McNeff’s works in the festival, then his music can be explored further in CDs of his music which include his Beatrix Potter suites (Chandos), vocal works with Claire McCaldin (Champs Hill) and works composed through his Bournemouth residency including the choral/orchestral Weathers (2007) and the orchestral Sinfonia (2007) and Secret Destinations (2005), performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. (Dutton Epoch)
All the works to be heard during the festival demonstrate the integrity and individualism of McNeff’s music which is best summarised again by the composer himself: ‘It does not particularly conform to any one school – I take the work as it comes and, pragmatically, belong to no ‘school’. I’d like to think of that as a virtue and that it allows me to absorb a wide range of inspirations, including Italy and Mexico, 20th century British music and also the work of John Adams; an admiration of a French rather than German aesthetic, but still appreciating the achievements of Post-War central Europeans and Russia.’ All in all it reflects his long experience of making a living exclusively by composing music.”
Further information from Presteigne Festival