Stephen McNeff was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in Wales. He studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music and undertook post-graduate work at the University of Exeter. His professional life began working in theatres throughout Britain and he became Associate Director at the University of Manchester’s Contact Theatre. He went to the Banff Centre in Canada as Composer in Residence for the newly-formed Music Theatre Ensemble, writing a number of works before becoming artistic director of Comus Music Theatre in Toronto. He won a Mavor Moore Award for his opera The Secret Garden. On his return to Britain he won a Scotsman Award at the Edinburgh Festival for his opera Aesop, written with his long-time collaborator, the Cornish poet Charles Causley.
His continuing relationship with the Canadian Brass resulted in a Brass Quintet and he also arranged numerous albums – including ones with the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic Brass. As his reputation grew in England his work was performed in major concert hall like the newly opened Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, but it was his quirky take on T S Eliot’s The Wasteland – presented operatically as a film noir thriller – that grabbed the attention of the London critics at the 1994 Covent Garden Festival.
He went on to write a number of other music theatre works including Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe (on the plight of the Zapatista Women), Slump (based on the cartoon strip by novelist Will Self) and, with the award winning poet Alice Oswald, Passions. In 2004 his opera Clockwork – based on the book by Philip Pullman – was a major success at the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The Royal Opera House commissioned him to write Gentle Giant, a work from the book by Michael Morpurgo which has been revived twice and is in the ROH repertoire. In 2007 he won the British Composer Award for his opera, Tarka the Otter. (Tarka will be seen at the Buxton Festival in 2011)
Despite a focus on opera and music for the theatre and voice he has written important instrumental pieces, including a Cello Sonata, a Piano Quintet and a large number of works for wind ensembles. Ghosts, his first major success in this genre, has been played extensively in Europe, Japan and the USA and been recorded twice. The Royal Northern College of Music recently recorded a portrait album of his wind music, Image in Stone, on the Campion label and other recent recordings feature the University of Indiana on the Klavier label. This adds to the number of CDs of his music, previous releases including his music for children (another very active area) in particular his Beatrix Potter Suites recorded by the BBC Concert Orchestra.
In 2005 he became Composer in Residence with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra where principal conductor Marin Alsop gave premieres of three new symphonic works, Heiligenstadt, Secret Destinations and the Sinfonia. This post was partly funded by the Royal Philharmonic Society and the PRS Foundation. Other works for the BSO included Weathers for chorus and orchestra (based on the poems of Thomas Hardy), and Echoes and Reflections, premiered by Yan Pascal Tortelier. He also completed works for the BSO’s new music ensemble Kokoro, notably LUX and Counting 1 and 2 (the latter also premiered in an exchange with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Ensemble 10/10).
In 2008 he wrote Near Avalon for the Ulster Orchestra and Choir (commissioned by the BBC) and his new orchestration of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was heard at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. This was unanimously praised by the London critics as a landmark development in approaches to performing the opera and was nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award. Recent works include the ConcertO Duo, (a double percussion concerto for the O Duo) commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Borletti Buitoni Trust conducted by David Robertson. A Voice of One Delight was premiered at the Presteigne Festival and in London in December 2010.
Future projects include Seven for a Secret… for Rambert Dance (based on the music of Ravel) which will be seen at Sadler’s Wells and on tour in autumn 2011. There will also be CD of his orchestral music with the BSO, and an opera based on Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo.
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