Concert Reviews

'Possession' for saxophone(s) and piano (2016)

"A third keyboard player made a big impression over the past week. This was pianist Izumi Kimura in partnership with saxophonist Cathal Roche. They were playing Ian Wilson's 2016 duo Possession, a 50-minute, part scored, part improvised fantasy based on dance musics from around the world. Fifty minutes is a long time, and for Kimura it was almost without break. Yet it appeared to cost her nothing and her playing shifted vividly with the changing moods of the music - now angry, now reflective, now celebratory. There was a chameleon-like element also to Roche's part - divided between tenor and soprano saxophones - which matched Kimura for adapting to whatever mood or occasion was suggested by the essence Wilson distilled from the regions whose music he borrowed. Both players exhibited virtuosity and stamina in equal measure, as well as an unerring capacity to blend their own improvisation with whatever fixed scoring Wilson had given them."

The Irish Times, 26th October 2016. Cathal Roche and Izumi Kimura, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.

 

'The Last Siren' - experimental opera (2014)

"The Last Siren review: a tour de force by Lauren Kinsella

The vocalist subtly and powerfully sustains both her difficult character and the audience's attention

Ian Wilson's experimental opera The Last Siren imagines the last surviving example of the mythological being, beautiful but dangerous, whose irresistible singing lured sailors to their deaths by shipwreck upon the nearby rocks. Not so this last one: her musical powers are diminished, as are her faculties. In her total isolation she grieves for her dead sister and is depressed, anxious and unhinged. She drinks. Her only companion is a toy (aptly, a wooden horse), with which she has a pseudo-relationship reminiscent of that between Tom Hanks and the volleyball Wilson in Cast Away.

The performance is a tour de force by vocalist Lauren Kinsella. Over her 60-minute monologue she subtly and powerfully sustains both her difficult character and the attention of the audience - this within a structured but almost entirely improvised presentation and by someone whose career is otherwise devoted not to acting but to composing and to singing jazz (she was 2016's vocalist of the year at the Jazz FM awards). She looks like a siren, albeit a broken one, and allows tantalising glimpses of her former lethal powers with the occasional fragments she sings.

The music, also, is improvised, performed by the Cork-based sound art duo The Quiet Club (Mick O'Shea and Danny McCarthy). Seated at desks on opposite sides of the stage, the two unfussily generate and amplify a wide and engaging spectrum of live and electronic sounds from various home-made and modified instruments. Most of the sounds consist of abstract yet cannily feasible responses to what's unfolding dramatically in the space between the two players, although a few moments call for something recognisable, such as an epic thunderstorm they raise while still scarcely moving.

Wilson, who devised the concept and the libretto, encourages the audience - through this lonely last siren - to reflect on memories, on loss and suffering, on endurance and courage, and on how nothing stays the same forever, not even in mythology. The actual details of those subjects, upon which the last siren ruminates for an hour, have already started fading as the performance ends. The libretto is not one of the piece's strongest features, and represents a bit of a lost opportunity. What sticks in the mind is how the powerful concept behind the libretto inspires such engaging and spontaneous performances."

The Irish Times, 17th October 2016. Lauren Kinsella, The Quiet Club, Dublin Theatre Festival.

 

"Resistance is futile when The Last Siren sings

In ‘The Last Siren's' haunting tale, themes of isolation and loneliness, memory and delusion are explored in an intriguing libretto by Wilson... If ‘The Last Siren's' score has its issues, which are far outweighed by its successes, its principle performance by Lauren Kinsella borders on the sublime. Vocally and performatively Kinsella is utterly stunning. Whether singing, chanting, whispering, giggling, sneering or making any one of a myriad of sounds, her voice lures you in completely. If there's a Bjork like quality to the ‘The Last Siren's' vocal improvisations, this has much to do with the terms of its soundscape. But Kinsella's jazz leanings are also well in evidence, along with many other hidden dimensions. Yet Kinsella is not prepared simply to rely on her vocal prowess, she also uses her body as an instrument of performance, and her physical vocabulary is utterly riveting. Under director Ksenija Krnajski, Kinsella's body, arms, eyes and fingers brim with pain, confusion and rage, like something from an Asian horror movie that lives behind a mirror or at the bottom of a pool, surfacing at night to haunt with deathly intent. The decision to use a bottle of vodka early on initially informs Kinsella's performance with a literal reason for her behaviour, diminishing its intensity and interpretative possibilities as a result. But once the bottle is lost, her actions take on far more potent and poetic possibilities, with her relationship with her little, toy horse being eerily and wonderfully effective.

Ian Wilson's ‘The Last Siren' is a brave and intriguing new work whose haunting and atmospheric soundscape performed live by The Quiet Club has moments of captivating beauty and intensity. But its real revelation is Lauren Kinsella, whose incredible performance discloses musical and performative possibilities she has never quite shown before. Magnetic and mesmerising, both musically and theatrically, in ‘The Last Siren' Lauren Kinsella is irresistibly, jaw droppingly brilliant." 

The Arts Review, October 16th 2016 (Four stars)


"The Last Siren is a stimulating experience for the ears, to say the least."

MEG, 16th October 2016

 

'Sonnenwende' for piano (2009)

"The standout piece in Michael McHale's lunchtime piano recital was Ian Wilson's upbeat, frisky Sonnenwende."

Irish Times, 21st September 2016 

 

'The Last Siren' - experimental opera (2014)

Ian Wilson's ‘The Last Siren' - a left-field operatic reinvention of the Sirens of Greek Mythology. Sound art collective Quiet Club - aka Danny McCarthy and Mick O'Shea - flank either side of the stage. Engulfed in electronic gizmos, wires and found objects, and with O'Shea sporting eccentric headgear, they inhabit the set like mad scientists in a Terry Gilliam film.

Central to the performance is Dublin-born, London-based singer Lauren Kinsella, who enters pulling a tiny toy horse on a piece of string. It's her constant companion, for unlike the Sirens of mythology who numbered two or more, Kinsella represents Wilson's ‘what if' vision of a lone Siren, one tortured by loneliness, loss, jealousy, anger and despair.

Kinsella's half-spoken-half sung monologue is as dense and colorful as a slice of Samuel Beckett's poetry. How much of the text is improvised is unclear, but regardless, Kinsella - hypnotic and emotionally engaging throughout - glides between ouzo- guzzling bag-lady persona to seductive Siren, her sad song a beacon in a dark world of personal demons. McCarthy and O'Shea provide a sympathetic electronic soundtrack - employing a mini-gramophone, a violin bow and a butcher's meat-table scrubbing brush, amongst other items - that runs from subliminal to searing.

Better known as the voice of Blue Eyed Hawk and Snowpoet, Kinsella's compelling performance in Wilson's curious piece of theatre - directed by Ksenija Kmajski - suggests that, like Czech icon Iva Bittova, she could make the transition from singing to acting with some success.

Ian Patterson, The Thin Air, 20th November 2015.

 

'A Disconnected Rhythm' - Documentary film (2014)

"Meanwhile, A Disconnected Rhythm turned out to be an unlikely jewel in TV3's festive offerings. At the curious crossroads of art and science, this documentary followed the experience of Ian Wilson, who had been commissioned by the National Centre for Arts & Health to create a piece of music inspired by the experience of Parkinson's Disease.

He duly takes up a residency at Tallaght Hospital and observes patients, families and those colliding every day with the degenerative condition. Initially coming up against a group of patients reluctant to cooperate on-camera, Wilson and his collaborator Leontia Flynn soon earn their confidence. The quiet brutality of Parkinson's Disease is laid bare, right down to the everyday difficulties patients face. It may not sound like a fun festive watch, but the stoicism of Tallaght's patients makes A Disconnected Rhythm a truly affecting and touching production."

Tanya Sweeney, The Herald, 30th December 2014 (4 stars)

 

'Alluvio', string quartet no.15 (2014)

"The [Scoring History] series is quite unlike any the [Vanbrugh] quartet was involved with in its nearly 30-year relationship with RTÉ. It was given in conjunction with the Belfast composer Ian Wilson, now resident in Cork. Wilson turns 50 this month, and has a tally of 15 quartets to his name. With him as curator, the series amounted to an idiosyncratic survey of the string quartet, built around a selection of his own work.

Wilson talks engagingly about music, and is one of those composers with the knack of making you see why a particular idea caught hold of him and led to the writing of a particular piece. His spoken introductions to the music were spot-on. He communicated as easily about the other music on offer as about his own.

I got to three of the concerts, from which the standout among Wilson's works was the new Alluvio, a response to the flooding in Cork earlier this year, in a series of morphing patterns, from light to threatening and disturbing, with off-centre, microtonal tension."

Irish Times, 3rd December 2014. Vanbrugh Quartet, National Concert Hall Dublin.


"Ian Wilson, introducing his 15th string quartet, ‘Alluvio', spoke of his close relationship with the Vanbrugh Quartet, praised in particular their willingness to experiment and their absolute dedication to getting into the heart and soul of the music they are playing...

I was sufficiently captivated by the imaginative sounds, sequences and effects [in ‘Alluvio'] to want to hear them again."

Irish Examiner, 15th November 2014. Vanbrugh Quartet, Cork School of Music.

 

'Three Songs of Home' for alto flute, harp and viola (2014)

"Camerata added another world premiere to its portfolio treasury with a gift from Irish composer Ian Wilson. Inspired by the Himalayan visions of poet Tony Curtis, Three Songs of Home for trio was an evening highlight characterized by spaciousness, spare melodic figures, repetition, and mystery."

Joseph Miller, Santa Barbara Independent, 13th October 2014. Camerata Pacifica, Hahn Hall, Santa Barbara/CA.

 

'Teampall fuaime' for unaccompanied choir (2014)

"...I myself felt increasingly challenged as I began to question my role in the piece. Was I audience or witness, or was the choir my voice as I sat in the space? Teampall Fuaime was a strong and challenging piece and I commend Cork Chamber Choir for their whole-hearted engagement and accomplished delivery."

Irish Examiner, 7th May 2014. Cork Chamber Choir, Cork Internatioal Choral Festival, Triskel Christchurch Cork.

 

'Minsk' (2005/6), opera in 7 scenes

"With the unusual diversity in his orchestration for strings, composer Ian Wilson defies old habits and opens a path to multi-layered, rule-breaking activities. [Conductor] Ruben Gazarian fine-tuned the Wuerttemberg Chamber Orchestra to this unusual sound world...This chamber opera is musically and theatrically a very special endeavor."

Armin Bauer, Ludwigsburger Kreiszeitung, March 2013. Theater-Heilbronn production, director Christian Marten Molnár. 

 

"Ian Wilson has the ambition to develop a new musical language for each work...With that he has fully succeeded in "Minsk"... He creates a sound which demonstrates homogeneity despite all the different materials ... ideal stage music."

Frieder Reinighaus, Deutschlandradio, 3rd March 2013

 

"[Wilson] retrieves astonishingly differentiated sound colours from the strings divided into many parts...it is easily approachable."

J. Gahre, Das Opernglas, April 2013

 

"Ian Wilson supports with his composition for strings the [production's] feeling for dreamscapes. His music serves the libretto well. Extensively layered strings, interrupted by nervous interjections and rhythmical phrases from the first violins or deep basses, accompany the three singers. Even the percussion contributes to the lucid sound pattern. [...] The audience applauded at length (unusual for contemporary opera) for the singers, director and musicians."

Juergen Strein, Fraenkische Nachrichten, 6th March 2013

 

"Ruben Gazarian's Württemberg Chamber Orchestra Heilbronn unfolds the score of Northern Irish composer Ian Wilson with surprising rhythmic incisiveness. Minimal and world music, Bartok and Britten converge. A nervous rumbling subway soundtrack symbolizes the nervous feverishness of the city, sadly beautiful cantilenas represent feelings torn between two cultures.

Wilson had actually planned a folkloristic instrumentation with accordion and balalaika. But this premiere version for string orchestra developed its own distinctive charm."

Otto Paul Burkhardt, Suedwest Presse, 5th March 2013

 

'Flags and Emblems' (2012), fantasy for piano, orchestra and flute band

"A CENTURY ago American pioneer Charles Ives was imitating the sound of marching bands in his music.

In Flags and Emblems, a new Ulster Orchestra commission, Belfast composer Ian Wilson went one better, by involving a real band (the Ballygowan Flute) in the performance.

At the Whitla Hall premiere, the Ballygowan sat on the left of the floor area accommodating most of the players, with the Ulster Orchestra (minus strings) opposite, and pianist Matthew Schellhorn in between. It was a striking spectacle, with a large battery of percussion ranged onstage, and the crimson Ballygowan uniforms contrasted graphically with the traditional stage-black of the orchestra.

Wilson used band, orchestra and soloist in shifting combinations, and occasionally together. Making his conducting debut with the Ulster Orchestra, Wilson drew a predictably tight, assured performance from the players, confirming that Flags and Emblems is an innovative, vividly imagined piece, worthy of repeat performances."

Belfast Telegraph, 31st October 2012. Matthew Schellhorn, Ulster Orchestra, Ballygowan Flute Band, conducted by Ian Wilson. Belfast Festival at Queen's/UK.

 

'Stille, nacht' (2011) for guitar and string quartet

"Irish guitarist Michael O'Toole joined the Carducci Quartet for the world premiere of Belfast composer Ian Wilson's Stille, nacht, a 'night piece inspired by the constellated sky and the idea of gathering darkness'.

Reminiscent of Britten's Nocturnal, the piece also, oddly, recalls Haydn's Farewell Symphony in its strategy of gradually withdrawing content ('taking away', as Wilson puts it) from the music's substance as it progresses. The impression of an ink-black firmament, lonely stars twinkling in the isolated immensity of outer space, is palpable at the work's conclusion."

Classical Review, 14th May 2012. Michael O'Toole, Carducci Quartet, The MAC, Belfast/UK.

 

'I Burn for You' (2012) Experimental music theatre

"Snape Maltings - the quaintly majestic performance centre in the village of Snape, inland from Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast - is the home of the Aldeburgh Festival, founded by Benjamin Britten in 1948. Faster Than Sound, the festival's speculative strand, brings artists together to work on a project for a week, culminating in a performance in one of the Maltings's smaller venues.

          I Burn For You, a music theatre reimagining of Bram Stoker's Dracula, was conceived by composer Ian Wilson, around the casting of Hungarian vocalist Attila Csihar in the lead role. An obvious enough proposition, perhaps, but with the addition of vocalists Elaine Mitchener and Phil Minton (as ‘Doctor', the Van Helsing role) and improvising musicians David Toop, Clive Bell and Cathal Roche, it takes on an unexpected dimension.

          While Csihar, with his accent and penchant for the macabre, is completely believable as the Vampyre, there's also a campness to his performance which recalls his time spent in corpse paint and costumes for Metal projects. Yet the musicians help to counterbalance this, adding gravitas to his hisses, snarls and stretched groans. Bell, who also plays shakuhachi and accordion, is particularly affecting on khene, or Laotian mouth organ. Its mellow tone has none of the shrillness of a harmonica, and his duet with saxophonist Roche on baritone was particularly lovely; as was their shakuhachi and soprano sax duet. Toop, sitting behind an array of devices, is at times an aural fog machine, laying down a bed of atmosphere for the two melodic leads. But he also leads the dramatic climax with a distorted electric guitar, or accentuates depth with percussion.

          Mitchener is riveting as Woman: her pure, clean tones are at once controlled and exploratory, sliding up and down the register. When Minton enters the stage, the duo deliver contrasting dynamics. At first he echoes her, voices twining, but moves into a touch of Appalachian yodelling and bubbling hiccups. Minton may be the more versatile of the two, but is at his least enjoyable when he plays it straight, sounding almost like a ham actor on the West End stage.

          With two screens but a minimal set, I Burn For You is a model of economy. The projections do the work of setting the scene, but only by suggestion: large, static shots of the sea, a field of wheat, a cluster of thorny branches or gravestones. Economy could be a theme through the night, and the entire performance lasted only 50 minutes. But the succinctness did not detract from the story, which is well known anyway. Indeed, it felt like a rich, if scaled-down, operatic experience, which left the viewer wanting more."

Lisa Blanning, The Wire, May 2012

 

'The stars, the seas' (2011) for orchestra and choir

Outstanding launch of excellent Titanic centenary piece

“The Ulster Orchestra marked the Titanic centenary with the premiere of its specially-commissioned piece from Belfast-born composer Ian Wilson.

In his pre-concert interview the composer sought to distance himself from a specifically programmatic design to his new work – entitled ‘The stars, the seas’ – it was an unnecessary precaution. The work itself deftly followed a colour-coded Titanic narrative which in no way detracted from the natural flow of the musical conception, sensitively directed by conductor Paul Watkins.

The five-section structure moved from the clear textured, rhythmically motivated Build/Launch/Forward sections, climaxing, subsiding and transiting into the central core setting of Helen Pizzey’s ‘No sun, no moon’, which Cappella Caeciliana sang with clarity and balance. It was the final ambiance of the last two sections which proved most effective in portraying the ghost-like aural images of the ship.

Some typically imaginative orchestral touches, such as the echo of the ship’s horn, added a special colour to the evocative atmospheres engendered in Ian’s successful new piece.”

Rathcol, Belfast Telegraph, 18th February 2012 (4 stars). Ulster Orchestra, Cappella Caeciliana, conducted by Paul Watkins, Ulster Hall, Belfast/UK.

 

'The Book of Ways' for improvising saxophonist and improvising string quartet (2011)

"The Book of Ways, by the outgoing festival director Ian Wilson, had a sense of unwavering purpose in the most intriguingly idiosyncratic way: Saxophonist Cathal Roche, through sustained and delicately textured improvisation, became a central, constant force around which the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet orbited, creating a filigree of out-of-focus gestures." 

The Journal of Music, 11th May 2011. Cathal Roche, RTE Vanbrugh Quartet, Sligo New Music Festival.

 

'Una Santa Oscura' (2009) Acoustic Theatre for violinist

"[Tom] Creed also directed Una Santa Oscura at the Smock Alley Theatre, a remarkable piece that has grown in my memory. From the disparate inspirations of the writings of 12th-century saint Hildegard of Bingen and neurologist Oliver Sacks on migraine, Creed fashioned a wordless piece in which the primary "language" was that of Ian Wilson's violin score, as played by Ioana Petcu-Colan against electronic soundscapes and video projections. We watched Petcu-Colan pottering around her flat, fixing a meal but repeatedly interrupted by memories and migraine alike. At times, as the character recalled the failed relationship that left her pregnant, the violin and electronica assumed an elegiac tone against a backdrop of blurred cityscapes; at others, a rapid, agitated squeaking accompanied flashing visual geometries. I was surprised how easily "readable", and how deeply, the piece proved to be." (Four Stars)

Financial Times, 12th October 2010. Ioana Petcu-Colan, violin, Tom Creed, director, Dublin Theatre Festival/IR.


"Described by creator Ian Wilson as ‘acoustic theatre,' this work seems enigmatic at first glance. Dubbed by the Festival programme as truly original and a memorable experience, it does much to live up to this expectation.

The audience looks onto the sparse living space of a young woman. No words are spoken throughout the work, yet the sometimes harrowing, sometimes soothing line of the violin gives evocative expression to the protagonist's thoughts and feelings. The soundscape and visuals reflect these introspective motions as a day passes in front of us; at times dark and troubled, at others light and nostalgic, we move from day break, to memories of the beach, and finally to rest as the starry night quietens the city.

A tribute to the 12th century musician and abbess Hildegard von Bingen, this singularly beautiful work explores the theme of seclusion. The slow paced action and musical narrative, at most only suggestive, gives the audience a rare amount of utterly subjective mental space for meditative and individual interpretation.

In Santa‘s more obtuse moments this threatens to become a burden rather than a privelege. But as the protagonist is lulled to sleep by her final consonant, lullaby melodies, so too does a sense of resolution fall on the dissonance of before.

Trinity News, 10th October 2010.

 

"Just what kind of a person was Hildegard von Bingen? Was she, as history records, a devout 12th Century anchoress and mystic, cloistered not only in her abbey, but also in her devotional music compositions and frequent ethereal visions? Or can we make the case for a tortured shut-in, expressing herself in erratic fits and starts; somebody whom the neurologist Oliver Sacks would later diagnose as having one of history’s most famous migraines? Ian Wilson’s Una Santa Oscura, a fragmentary composition for violin embedded in an ambient burble of electronic soundscapes and realised for stage performance by director Tom Creed, suggests that Hildegard was all of the above.

It’s no easy feat to fold a relatively obscure figure from antiquity into a contemporary setting, to parallel her spiritual vesselhood with a portrait of modern isolation. It’s no easier to combine an elliptical violin sonata with a coherent theatrical narrative. (It’s “like an opera without singers,” went one blurb, as though struggling to articulate this mysterious new form of wordless music performance.) The great strength of Una Santa Oscura, rather fittingly, is its faith in performance. This is evident in the absorbing presence of violinist Ioana Petcu-Colan, a lyrical player who pads around Ciarán O’Melia’s bedsit set in her socks, moving gingerly between a partially concealed kitchen at one end and a ruffled duvet at the other, before fetching her instrument – with pronounced scepticism – from the top of a fridge. But it’s also there in the production’s collision of music, stage aesthetic and action, with each party asked to complete the work of the other through a shared belief in harmony.

That it doesn’t entirely cohere, leaving the impression that none of the elements are finished, resembles the inverse of Hildegard’s own problem. Where she struggled to give explanations to her visions, here it’s the other way around. “Everything from what the violin soloist wears… to the sonic and visual props on stage and of course the actual music she performs, relates in some way to Hildegard’s life and context,” the programme informs us, stretching the concept still further with references from ethnomusicology to Sacks’s treatise on migraines. Can these various strands be untangled? More attentive ears might be able trace the inheritance of Hildegard’s gossamer monody, 'Ave Maria O Autrix Vite', in Wilson’s electronically generated recording (in collaboration with John Greenwood and Stephen McCourt), but even experts may puzzle over the significance of, say, Petcu-Colan’s socks.

At under an hour, the performance is carefully encoded, like a religious text that awaits interpretation or an hallucination full of locked meanings. Few will fail to appreciate the parallels that O’Melia’s design draws between anchorage and the urb an prison of a dismal bedsit, however, which he somehow lights beautifully with a passage through a single day, adding stylised flickers of spiritual visitation. And as Petcu-Colan produces soft and transporting phrases with her bow that cede randomly to abrasive, unsettling scratches, the expression of both mystic and musician seems engagingly unpredictable – the fruits of uncertain muses.

Accompanied by Jack Phelan’s video design, which daubs the walls with images of urban development (cranes and cityscapes) and misty remembrances (a beach-side walk of distended details, glimpsed while a photo is retrieved from a book), Petcu-Colan’s narrative wavers in and out of our comprehension. It’s as though the makers know that their work functions best as the level of abstraction, yet nobody can bring themselves to bury the evidence of their dramaturgy.

When we are allowed to succumb to the experience, without feeling it necessary to chase various clues back to their sources, Wilson’s languorous themes and repeated phrases become more transportative. Over a rippling pond of digital loops, they sound a subtle emulation of the rapture of inspiration and incantation. Whether Phelan’s later projected images of a constellation of pinpricks lights allude to the “extinguished stars” of Hildegard’s visions, or the “migraine aura” so carefully outlined by Oliver Sacks, the loose connection of sound and vision begins to feel like an unresolved equation.

That could be the point. With its disjointed moments and elusive referents, this impressionistic collaboration allows us to construct our own Hildegard and arrive at a wilderness of interpretations. Her experiences, and our responses, can register with the force of anything from divine inspiration to a throbbing headache."

Irish Theatre Magazine, Peter Crawley, 11th March 2010. Ioana Petcu-Colan, violin, Tom Creed, director, Project Arts Centre, Dublin/IR.

 

"This was the premiere of an onion piece, a multi-disciplinary composition with layers to peel away revealing different things.

The innermost layer is new and thoughtful music for violin and tape by Belfast-born Ian Wilson. The piece’s main inspiration – and the next layer of the onion – is the eponymous “obscure saint”, Hildegard of Bingen – 12th-century abbess, visionary, composer, scientist, writer, and philosopher. Seven of its 13 short movements have the religious titles “Devotional” and “Visionary”, and three more are called “Interlude”. The remaining three have narrative titles whose connection to the life of Hildegard is alluded to but not spelt out: “Tirade”, “Intense Love”, and “Near Death Experience”.

More layers: first, that this is Hildegard through the filter of Oliver Sacks – doctor, neurologist and author, who suggested in a 1970 collection of case studies called Migraine that her visions were headache-induced – and, second, that this is music theatre. Director Tom Creed and designer Ciarán O’Melia set the wordless action in a spartan bed-sit that resonates with the abbess’s cell.

As the piece opens, the soloist Ioana Petcu-Colan eyes her violin sitting atop the fridge. The tape runs – quiet but not altogether at ease, with electronically manipulated samples, mostly from the violin. She eventually, hesitantly plays an innocent little figure. From that moment all the layers are in train together.

Petcu-Colan is asked to do almost everything and almost nothing. In other words, she alone must carry the whole piece, and yet the staging asks for no great dramatic input. Throughout this spectrum she is commanding, as she is with her instrument, so that the whole, multilayered experience strikes a successful balance between the perplexing and the moving."

The Irish Times, 8th March 2010. 

 

'The Beloved and Her Lover' for choir (2009)

"By contrast, entirely successful was Ian Wilson’s highly concentrated and delicately clustery settings of Irish translations from the Song of Solomon. It featured a lyrical solo from soprano Deirdre Moynihan and, with the Stanford, was the concert highlight."

The Irish Times (Michael Dungan), 7th December 2009. National Chamber Choir of Ireland, soloist Deirdre Moynihan, conductor Paul Hillier, St Anne's Church, Dawson Street, Dublin/IR.

 

"...heart-stoppingly beautiful..."

The Irish Times (Arminta Wallace), 15th December 2009.

 

'Mürrische Erde' for viola (2009)

"Wilson’s piece is, essentially, a transcription of the solo part from Sullen earth, for violin and orchestra, a piece I have written sleevenotes for. Without the orchestra gluing the disparate elements of the solo line together one might expect Mürrische Erde to run into problems. On the contrary. Maybe it was a consequence of hearing the piece live (something that hasn’t been possible with Sullen earth). No doubt it was something to do with Magyar’s performance – which in this piece found an electrifying delicacy – but for me it worked even better. My lasting impression was of half-developed photographs hung on a line, and a cold draft blowing. There are, beneath the surface fragmentation of this score, fragile connections in terms of favoured intervals, rhythms and figurations. The components of melody, in fact. But at what point does melody stretch too far and break like a string of pearls? Just as one wonders whether Wilson has crossed that line, he introduces the simplicity of a medieval French folk tune, which Magyar played absolutely straight. As, in that moment, everything mystifyingly came together, you could have heard a pin drop."

The Rambler website, Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 3rd December 2009. Eniko Magyar, St John's, Smith Square, London/UK.

 

'Drive' (1992) and 'Spilliaert's Beach' (1999) for violin and piano

"Of the four composers represented in this concert, Ian Wilson is probably the best-known in London, even if his music is still only infrequently performed here. Drive (1992) and Spilliaert’s Beach (1999) are relatively early pieces that don’t immediately anticipate the turns taken by his later music, but there are common elements of harmonic language and melodic fluency. I was especially struck by McHale’s playing in Drive, which extracted an almost lounge-jazzy feel from some of the piano chords that I hadn’t heard before but rather liked as evidence of Wilson’s mellifluous style, open to a wide range of influences and able to accommodate them all without descending to easy eclecticism."

Musical Pointers website, Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 16th November 2009. Ioana Petcu-Colan, Michael McHale, King's Place, London/UK.

 

'Schattentiefe' for double bass and live recording (2004, rev. 2008)

"...In contrast, works by Henze and Belfast’s Ian Wilson sought simply to express things within the constraints of a single instrument. Strictly speaking, Ian Wilson’s 2004 Schattentiefe (“Deep Shadow”, in a shortened revision from 2008) is not unaccompanied since, in keeping with the central idea of Wilson’s “Shadow” pieces, the work’s second half features the soloist playing alongside a recording of his performance of the first. How well this worked, the instrument’s wide range exploited and stretched so that the elephant’s voice complemented rarer, more delicate utterances using high registers and halo-edged harmonics, all expressively achieved – as throughout this recital – by Robinson, the work’s dedicatee."

The Irish Times, 24th June 2009. Malachy Robinson, Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin/IR.

 

'Across a clear blue sky' for string quartet, radios and drumming toys (2009)

"...this gripping piece."

The Irish Independent, 15th April 2009. RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, Seamus Heaney 70th birthday concert, Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin/IR.

 

'In fretta, in vento', string quartet no. 6 (2001)

"...is a single-movement work that seems to look back to slow, lyrical post-war music of Shostakovich and others. This makes sense because the music looks back in remembrance of lives lost on 9/11. Towards the end, solemn, hushed, 4-part chorales look back even further in music history in a way that is deeply moving."

Anthony Aibel, New York Concert Review, Winter 2009. ConTempo Quartet, Carnegie Hall, New York/USA.

 

'Stations' for piano (2006/07)

"Matthew Schellhorn gave a sensitive first complete performance...This collection of distilled impressions is emotional rather than pictorial - it's a sound world of ambience and intimation."

Belfast Telegraph, 10th April 2009. Matthew Schellhorn, piano, Harty Room, Queens University Belfast/UK.

 

"Schellhorn's performance of the work is assured and definite in its direction, giving life to Wilson's music with a surprisingly colourful and unifying rendition of all fourteen movements. Thematic pillars become clear and musical continuity is certainly achieved throughout the 65 minute work, bringing all elements together with confidence." 

Graeme Stewart, culturenorthernireland.org, 16th April 2009.

 

'Spilliaert's Beach' - for violin and piano (1999)

"...But, curiously, the rarely disturbed stillness of Ian Wilson’s Spilliaert’s Beach (inspired by Léon Spilliaert’s painting Moonlight Beach), with its violin lines falling quietly into chordal pools, sounded more purely impressionist than the sonatas by Debussy and Ravel that framed it."

The Irish Times, 27th March 2009. Catherine Leonard and Warren Jones, National Concert Hall, Dublin/IR.

 

'Winter's edge' - string quartet no. 1 (1992)

"If anyone had any doubt about the contribution of Music Network’s touring programmes to Irish musical life, the Badke Quartet’s 11-stop tour has some of the answers. Music Network has always encouraged performers to include Irish works in their programmes. And Ian Wilson, currently the most prolific Irish composer of string quartets, has benefitted greatly from this policy.

His First String Quartet, Winter’s Edge , commissioned for, as well as premiered, toured and recorded by the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, has been taken up by a number of quartets’ Network tours. By the time the Badkes have finished, Winter’s Edge will have achieved some 40 performances in Ireland since its 1993 premiere.

The quartet, inspired by “the idea of Redemption as exemplified in the life of St Paul” is gesturally strong, and imaginatively resourceful in its handling of string quartet colours and textures. The Badkes delivered it with focused energy and lyricism, with Eniko Magyar’s long viola solo near the start being particularly memorable. And yet, every time I hear the piece, I stumble at the extended evocation of part of the Danse sacrale from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring . The borrowing does not explain itself, and it’s just too large to ignore."

The Irish Times, 26th March 2009. Badke Quartet, Dublin Castle/IR.

 

'TUNDRA' - multi-media dance work (2008)

"What sounded like the slow shunting of train carriages rumbled the walls of the theatre as shafts of light strafed the crowd, transporting the audience to the tundra. This was a polished, considered work by Triptych, featuring music by Ian Wilson and an enormously disciplined performance by Anne Gilpin.

With no dialogue, she shaped a loose narrative of isolation and pursuit, displacement and migration, under unforgiving lighting (designed by Conleth White) which drifted from aggressive reds to laconic blues, and the unsettled audience was left largely to draw its own conclusions. Frequent trumpet bursts from Mark O'Keeffe punctuated the musical drift.

The ramshackle venue of the Empty Space was in tune with the piece, but, as movements began and ended with Gilpin on the floor, the lack of tiered seating was an oversight. This, though, was an elegantly controlled performance; Gilpin imbued some of the movements with an almost glacial pace and gravity that was enormously impressive."

Irish Times, 9th September 2008. Anne Gilpin, dancer, Mark O'Keeffe, trumpeter, Conleth White, lighting, Dublin Fringe Festival, The Empty Space, Dublin/IR.

 

'Harbouring' for multiple choirs, traditional singers, accordion and string orchestra (2007)

"Although not entirely representative of this composer’s personal aesthetic, the work does display all the craftsmanship, architectonic sense and subtle ear for colour that those who know his work have come to expect."

 

The JMI, July/August 2008. Dermot Dunne, 'Whisht' traditional singers, Gorey Choral Group, Enniscorthy Choral Society, Wexford Festival Singers, Irish Chamber Orchestra, cond. Fergus Sheil. White's Hotel Conference Centre, Wexford/IR.

 

 

'The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World' for narrator and ensemble (2007)

"...the Belfast-born composer Ian Wilson had written a “setting” of the Gabriel Garcia Márquez short story, The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.

With Gavin Friday as narrator, it received its UK premiere in a packed Corn Exchange: sand-ripples of meandering lines and sea-sprays of song and tremolo, in a cunning score that never upstaged, but was as impassioned as the words themselves.

Hilary Finch, The Times, 21st May 2008. Gavin Friday, Carol McGonnell, Finghin Collins, Elizabeth Cooney, Richard Harwood. Brighton Festival.

 

 

'Messenger' for violin and 13 instruments (2006)

"...above all, it was music-making of the highest quality.

The programme, which totals barely an hour's listening, is calculated less to appeal than to challenge. John Harbison's relentlessly objective Piano Quintet (1981) creates an emotional hunger that's more than satisfied by Wilson's richly subjective Messenger (1999/2006).


Originally scored for full orchestra, this four-movement violin concerto was given its first performance by Leonard in 2001. Now condensed for 13 instruments, the latest version reduces the forces, but not their intense effectiveness. It's a memorable piece for many reasons, but especially for strongly idiomatic solo writing that places the traditional virtuosities - gliding position changes, cantilenas, trills, double stops and dazzling passages - in newly poignant surroundings. Wilson can be optimistic that it will be more widely taken up. How many violinists will bring the solo part nearer to perfection than Leonard does is harder to predict."

 

Andrew Johnstone, The Irish Times, 2nd May 2008. Catherine Leonard, Camerata Pacifica, National Concert Hall, Dublin.

 

 

"The Wigmore Hall was also the penultimate stop on California-based Camerata Pacifica’s seven-stop tour (2 May), featuring an arrangement for violin and 13 instruments of Messenger, the violin concerto by Irish composer Ian Wilson (b. 1964). Soloist Catherine Leonard weaved her way through a demanding and diverse role in a thoughtful and committed performance. But more impressive was the impact of the piece itself, with its brilliantly scored Ravelian evocation of darkly tinged childhood innocence in the second movement. At 30 minutes, Messenger is a substantial work and one that any enlightened violinist would surely want in their armoury. A smaller-scale Camerata had already impressed in the Piano Quintet by John Harbison at the opening of the concert, but Wilson’s piece was more compelling.

Edward Bhesania, The Strad, August 2008. Catherine Leonard, Camerata Pacifica, Wigmore Hall, London.

 

"...the astringency and density of Wilson's concerto, "Messenger," flows from the composer's firsthand war experiences such as the 1999 airstrikes in Belgrade, Serbia. In the brooding account, sliding glissandi conjured dark visions of falling bombs, while compact textures evoked tense atmospheres. Through these dissonant sound blocks weaved the focused violin of Catherine Leonard, emerging like a lone voice amid remorseless terror. A lullaby in the second movement came off more gritty than soothing, and little light came into a more quiescent finale.

Pianist Warren Jones's rhapsodic account of Brahms's E-flat Intermezzo from Op. 117 accentuated the ability of Wilson to paint emotional calm amid storm and stress.

Daniel Ginsberg, The Washington Post, 25th April 2008. Catherine Leonard, Camerata Pacifica, Library of Congress, Washington DC.

 

 

 

'Ghosts' for saxophone quartet (2006)

“…Glazunov exploited [the different instruments’] colours and characters with deep insight. In this quality he was matched and I think surpassed by Irish composer Ian Wilson in his Ghosts, written in 2006 for the Amstel Quartet who, in a spoken introduction, paid a warm tribute to the Belfast man. The first of the two movements is driven by intense fanfares whose urgency makes them more like alarms. The slow second movement contains languid echoes of these alarms, out of which grows the nebulous atmosphere in which the eponymous ghosts make their fleeting, chilling (and not “spooky”) presence felt, with the eerie voices of multiphonics coming into play. This is captivating, beautifully crafted music which the Amstel performed around the world prior to giving this, the Irish premiere.”

Michael Dungan, Irish Times. 6th February 2008. Amstel Quartet. Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin.

 

‘Cassini Void’ for clarinet and 10 instruments (2007)

“…Ian Wilson’s fantastic “Cassini Void”, a work for chamber ensemble that brilliantly ended the evening and still resonates in this listener’s mind. What are most remarkable in Mr. Wilson’s piece are original combinations of sound - harpsichord, harp, muted trumpet and trombone, percussion and bass combinations, for example - and the physicality asked of the players. The clarinetist, as protagonist, is literally approached by the violist and other instruments in a musical face-off. It was clear by the high quality of this performance that the players were not just a freelance, random selection. This was the stellar Argento Chamber Ensemble, who can be counted among the three elite, superb groups of its kind in the city.”

Anthony Aibel, New York Concert Review. November 2007. Carol McGonnell, clarinet, Argento Ensemble cond. Michel Galante. Carnegie Hall, New York.

 

‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’ for narrator and small ensemble (2007)

“Wilson’s music - now watery and pictorial, now expressive of psychological states, now mysterious and abstract - uncannily captured the story’s strangely winning mix of the macabre and the beautiful, ending with exactly the warm, weird kind of happiness that the author seems to have intended. Entirely in tune with the atmosphere was the narrator Gavin Friday, who revealed in his deep, breathy delivery a twinkling appetite for the morbid as well as an appreciation for the positive human outcome of the story.”

Michael Dungan, Irish Times. October 6th 2007. Gavin Friday, Carol McGonnell, Catherine Leonard, Guy Johnston, Finghin Collins. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

 

‘unbroken white line’ for string quartet (2006)

“[The Carducci Quartet] were at their most impressive in Ian Wilson’s unbroken white line, an adaptation of music originally for saxophone quartet and a piece which only briefly steps out of its aggressive moto-perpetuo manner. They presented it as good, old-fashioned, jagged, dissonant modernism, with moments that seemed to emerge straight out of the world of Bartók.”

Michael Dervan, Irish Times. September 18th 2007. Carducci Quartet Festival, CIT Cork School of Music.

 

‘Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel’ for symphonic wind ensemble (2007)

“Ian Wilson, like Marshall and Bennett, relished the sonorities available from a wind ensemble and his work needs more hearings to be appreciated fully. At first hearing it is taut, athletic music of serious intent.”

Tim Reynish, www.timreynish.com. July 2007. International Youth Wind Orchestra, cond. Gerhard Markson. WASBE Conference, Killarney, Ireland.

 

‘re:play’ for improvising tenor sax, piano, string quartet and bass (2007)

“This was the premiere of Ian Wilson’s re:play, the second of this year’s new works at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival. It’s a septet that brings together an improvising saxophonist (Cathal Roche), a pianist (Hugh Tinney), a double bassist (Malachy Robinson) and a string quartet (the RTE Vanbrugh Quartet). Wilson lists the sources of inspiration as Roche’s saxophone playing and lines from Samuel Beckett’s Play, which the composer mined ”for melodic and rhythmic material”. The process may sound abstract but the results are anything but dry. The music is rhythmically giddy, and the use of microtones to explore between the cracks of conventional scales helps to create a floating, almost light-headed effect. Think of an atmosphere that’s at once everyday and familiar, but also disorientingly different, like those peculiarly heightened versions of reality that certain film directors create so well - think David Cronenberg or David Lynch. In Wilson’s world there are whiffs of nightclubs, of Astor Piazzolla, suggestions of Conlon Nancarrow, and this droll and slippery piece, which seemed as much fun to play as it was to listen to, also makes a feature of weaving comfortably in and out of improvisation.”

Michael Dervan, Irish Times. July 5th 2007. Cathal Roche, Hugh Tinney, Malachy Robinson, RTE Vanbrugh Quartet.

“The extraordinarily hard-working Vanbrugh [Quartet], at the top of their form, scared me with the world premiere of Ian Wilson’s “re:play”, which also called for saxophone (Cathal Roche), piano (Hugh Tinney) and double bass (Malachy Robinson). This mixture of modern jazz and art music had no boundaries and, while full of tension, was most exciting.”

Declan Townsend, Irish Examiner. July 10th 2007.

 

‘Messenger’ for violin and 13 instruments (2006)

“The concerto gives us the heroic image of a single player, bravely making a musical statement with a huge orchestra behind and an even bigger audience in front. On friday night, Catherine Leonard gave this image new meaning whe she performed the premiere of Ian Wilson’s “Messenger” Concerto for Violin and Chamber Ensemble. Not only did she play brilliantly, but the music’s own imagery - that of a frightened family anticipating, and then fleeing, the NATO bombardment of Belgrade in 1999 - came through in vivid colours. Wilson wrote the first movement of the concerto in the days leading up to the bombing, the second movement just after the birth of his son, and the third and fourth after the Wilson family had fled to Northern Ireland. The first movement began coherently, with clear melodies and ominous rumblings which then gave way to nearly hysterical fear. In contrast, the lullaby in the second movement didn’t become clear until the end; it’s then that you recognize the terrified parents calming their newborn son. The third movement was full of drive and industry, but the fourth kept returning to a single note (a high B) over and over again, making a sound like a cardiac monitor when the patient flatlines.”

Congratulations to Adrian Spence and Camerata Pacifica on a brilliant finale and a magnificent season.

James Donelan, Santa Barbara Independent. May 24th 2007. Catherine Leonard, Camerata Pacifica.

 

‘Little red fish’ for choir and saxophone quartet (2006)

“…a setting of a superficially childish but in fact rather macabre little poem by the Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka…is thoroughly engaging in its dismantling of the text down to individual syllables and phonetic units, and in its ear-opening exploration of the special sonorities on offer. Alongside everything technically interesting was the constant presence of both the text and its underlying themes of violence, death and – more obtusely – sex. …The performance aroused a strong sense of occasion, of being witness to something rare.”

Michael Dungan, Irish Times. 3rd June 2006. National Chamber Choir of Ireland, Rascher Saxophone Quartet, cond. Celso Antunes.

 

‘Winter finding’ for orchestra (2004/05)

“…a striking addition to Wilson’s already copious orchestral output …bright, clean orchestral sound, punctuated by splashes of colour …Wilson’s reputation for technical resourcefulness is evidenced in his efficient use of material, and well-measured sense of pace.”

Fergal Dowling, Journal of Music in Ireland (JMI), Nov/Dec 2005. 16th September 2005, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, cond. Gerhard Markson.

“The music engages vividly with the poetry’s successive images…this extended work shows its composer’s characteristic technical command and manipulation of orchestral sound…there is no denying Wilson’s ability to conceive ideas that hold one’s attention, that connect, that show humane sensibility, and that demand to be taken seriously.”

Martin Adams, Irish Times, 19th September 2005.

 

‘SKIN’ multi-media dance work (2005)

“Collaborations between artists of diverse disciplines are often judged on their ability to coalesce. We determine the success of common ground found in pre-production artistic dialogue by what we can spot on opening night: a dancer’s sweeping arm in time with a similar musical gesture, or dark visual images reflected in comparable musical tonal colours. But common ground is often a barren place. Shared strengths can also be shared weaknesses and the richness in collaboration comes not in affirming what you know but learning what you don’t. Skin could be a dance performance by Jenny Roche backed by a musical score by Ian Wilson and featuring video images by Ian Joyce. Instead they have dismantled performance hierarchies and conventions to create a space where all three contributions are equal but still self-serving partners. The audience is seated on two sides of a square dance floor with white fabric video screens on either side. Opening video projections are of forests, clouds and craters, setting off thoughts of skin and surfaces, but as the images flick from one screen to the other to fragile, vibrato-less high cello notes, finding meaning gets overruled by just experiencing. In seeking to depict “a world of inner contemplation and an outer world of instability and change”, the individual voices speak clearly. Wilson’s episodic score is in the gap between improvisational intimacy and showmanship, as he flits between techniques that reflect the constantly changing visuals. When Roche dances, the impetus seems to be from within, although her gaze looks out far beyond the walls of Project. And the tiniest shift of energy in one part of her body causes movement in another, like a mobile. Similarly, Joyce’s images reflect the innocence of daisy chains held up in the wind alongside the tragic reality of flooded villages. Maintaining these individual voices strengthens the overall message, like cross-party politicians suddenly agreeing on something. And we leave, not bolstered by one message, but by the richness of difference in how these artists choose to speak to us.”

Michael Seaver, Irish Times, 25th May 2005. Jenny Roche, dancer, Ian Joyce, visuals

 

'In fretta, in vento', string quartet no. 6 (2001)

“The work by Irish composer Ian Wilson was perhaps the most intimate and lyrical piece of the weekend.”

Peter Blume, Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung, 27th April 2005. Callino Quartet, Heidelberg Spring Festival, Germany.

 

‘Licht/ung’ for orchestra (2004)

“The mood of the piece is one of foreboding, punctuated with heavy, percussive convulsions, with chords of low, threatening brass, like a barely contained braying… David Brophy kept [the work] on an appropriately firm and threatening trajectory.”

The Irish Times, October 16th 2006. RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, cond. David Brophy. National Concert Hall, Dublin.

“… the entire evening from the performance point of view unfolded under the banner of concentration: …in the timbric essentiality of ‘Licht/ung’ by Ian Wilson, who does not forego the clarity of invention even amid the tension - quite openly dramatic at times - of the sonorous gestures… All the pieces were cordially applauded by the Teatro Malibran audience, and Wilson’s work with particular warmth.”

Il Giornale di Vicenza, 19th October 2004 . Orchestra dell’Arena di Verona, cond. Johannes Debus. Venice Biennale.

“Ian Wilson is an overflowing talent.”

Il Manifesto, 21st October 2004 .

How can you measure modern compositional thought using an object [the orchestra] which is now historicized and which no longer provides opportunities for seeking new sounds? Is it necessary to pursue something original or, as the Irish composer Ian Wilson maintains, is it only necessary to seek to express what you are?

L’Osservatore Romano, 27th October 2004.

 

‘Eigenschatten’ for solo violin and live recording (2004)

“…lonely and remote, with shimmering harmonics like troubled sighs…the overall effect was both mesmeric and haunting in Leonard’s intensely thoughtful performance.”

Irish Times, 6th April 2004, Catherine Leonard, violin

 

‘Arbres d’alignement’ for orchestra (2003)

“The carefully layered piece showed a conceptual strength and gestural clarity.”

Irish Times, 24th February 2004. RTÉ CO cond. Jacques Mercier

 

‘Eat, Sleep, Empire’ and ‘Involute’ (‘Unterwelt’ parts 1 and 2) – for ensemble (2002/03)

“We can hopefully look forward to more additions to the Unterwelt series; these two pieces already point towards a set with strong group identity, but also a group of individuals.”

Journal of Music in Ireland, May/June 2003. Psappha Ensemble.

 

‘Hamelin’, chamber opera (2002)

LESSON IN POWER MANIPULATION AND THE MEDIA

Ian Wilson’s opera “Hamelin” enthusiastically received at the Provincial theatre.

Let no one believe he can always enjoy himself passively at the opera. No: during the premier of Ian Wilson’s “Hamelin” (libretto: Lavinia Greenlaw) at the provincial theatre interaction was demanded. There was free beer, leaflets, and those in the front rows had to be “extras” or they became scenery.

Producer Christian Marten-Molnar had had built, by decor and costume director Hans Jurgen Baumhofner, a podium in the middle of the Flensburg studio. Around this sat the audience as at a boxing match or in a disco; on TV monitors clips of pop stars like Britney Spears and subsequently live excerpts of the performance itself could be seen.

Antje Bitterlich brings great power to her role and shows the development from the shy outsider to the confident woman, contributing to this with many nuances of her beautiful soprano voice. Markus Wessiack (Bass) and Harald Quaaden (Tenor) are complete slobs oppressively tormenting and amusing at the same time, but always vocally at their best. Wilson ’s music which the small orchestra under the leadership of Theo Saye plays effectively, contains virtually all the techniques of modern composing; it is at the same time extremely catchy and always oriented towards the action. A flute symbolically reminds us of the piper. The remaining players with violin, guitar, harp, clarinet, double bass and percussion makes possible a filigree web of sound.

Ian Wilson’s “Hamelin” is a multilayered lesson in power manipulation and the media composed and produced in such a way as to produce a great effect.

Enthusiastic applause!!

Flensburg Daily, 17/03/03, Christoph Kalies

SUCCESSFUL PREMIERE IN THE PROVINCIAL THEATRE OF FLENSBURG: THE PIED PIPER TALE AS MODERN MUSICAL THEATRE

The provincial theatre of Schleswig-Holstein has, at least in miniature, taken a serious step forward in the affairs of new musical theatre.

… the theatre manager Michael Grosse was able to celebrate on Friday, on the little stage in Flensburg, the German language premiere of “Hamelin”; this is a concise chamber opera lasting one and a half hours by the Irish composer Ian Wilson (present at the performance), and the London librettist Lavinia Greenlaw. The libretto, translated into German by the Swiss lyricist Raphael Urweider, is characterised by a compact dialogue structure.

The town from which the ominous” piper” has enticed away not only the rats but also the children is represented by two dignitaries suffering from very guilty consciences and correspondingly repressed behaviour, and by a disabled girl. She couldn’t follow the piper quickly enough.

Ian Wilson has concentrated her effusive but disillusioned monologue into a remarkable and ambitious vocal flow to which the soprano Antje Bitterlich did justice in bravura fashion. Indeed, the vocal parts intermingled in an artistic garrulousness. At times this meant that they were not easily comprehensible; yet they had an atmospheric vividness. The work had its strongest moments when it turned into a grotesque and in contrast to the basic honesty of the girl, with Monty Python-like sharpness an opportunity for middle class political humour was given to the arch comedian and splendid juggler of voice, the bass Markus Wessiack (Doctor) and his slightly paler tenor partner Harald Quaaden (Mayor).

Christian Marten-Molnar the director is to be congratulated on the speed with which the action took place on the smallest of stages; he was enabled also by the provision of hanging TV monitors to blend together the Pied Piper MTV and the Hollywood ideals of the girl into a cheap local TV.

Kieler Nachrichten, 17/03/03, Christian Strehk

 

‘The Falling Upward of Things’, multi-media installation (2002)

“…an inspired collaboration between composer Ian Wilson and installationist Ian Joyce…a mesmeric integration…often heart-stopping music…you couldn’t close your eyes…in the centre of the church spun Joyce’s shroud-like vertical tomb of swaying, rotating linen panels…”

The News Letter (Belfast), 11th November 2002 . Belfast Festival performance.

 

‘Man-o’-War’ for orchestra (2001)

“As much as I admired the Vanbrugh Quartet’s recording of his String Quartets, I hadn’t expected Wilson’s orchestral writing to be this powerful. As he explained in his pre-Prom interview, he was playing on both definitions of the title – the Portuguese jellyfish and the naval vessel – hoping to convey a sense of threat. It worked…I found ‘Man-o’-War’ both extremely disturbing and technically impressive… Wilson’s talent is an exciting one. Let’s hope his next commission is for a much longer piece. I can’t wait.”

Independent on Sunday, 12 August 2001. Ulster Orchestra/Dmitry Sitkovetsky, BBC Proms.

“[The work’s] terse concentration, technical economy and command of sharply focused gesture were all strikingly impressive.”

Sunday Telegraph, 12 August 2001.

“…a ten-minute tone poem attempting to evoke both the warship and the poisonous jellyfish of the title, and doing so by means of a darkly colourful, often quite hefty, orchestral style. The instrumental sections were dramatically demarcated on the platform, the textures could not have been clearer. Brass and low woodwind dominated with rich, glowering sonorities, outright snarliness and a striking tuba solo midway. Lower strings sometimes created a treading-water effect; while Wilson’s penchant for quarter-tones allowed the strings as a whole to produce ripples of subtle dissonance that washed back over the orchestra like a polluted tide.”

Sunday Times, 12 August 2001.

 

‘In blue sea or sky’ for solo harp (2000)

“One associates the concert harp with lush arpeggios and rich glissandi, but nothing could be sparer than Ian Wilson’s new work, ‘In blue sea or sky’. It alters its harmonies so frequently that there is no time to linger over passing concordances, which end with single notes disappearing off the top of the instrument’s range. The title refers to pictures by Cy Twombly, in which it is not clear whether the ostensible subjects, boats, are floating in the sea or the sky. The music moves between the two elements with easy freedom; nothing much happens, the movement is all.”

The Irish Times, 22 October 2000. Cliona Doris, harp.

 

‘Abyssal’ for bass clarinet and ensemble (2000)

“Ian Wilson’s ‘Abyssal’ may have been often light in texture and spare of notes, but it was also overwhelmingly heavy of message. Its spaced-out, falling lines seem to tell not only of sighing and of keening, but also of burdens not quite lifted, agonies not quite suppressed. Stark and emotionally direct in its exploitation of quarter tones, it represents a recent and extremely impressive dark turn in the composer’s output.”

The Irish Times, 28 December 2000. Harry Sparnaay, bass clarinet, Crash Ensemble/David Brophy.

 

‘bluebrighteyes’ for choir (1999)

“Wilson is a composer who, understandably, finds that texts suitable for setting to music are rare. His approach to Frank Sewell’s translation of a love poem by Cathal O’Searcaigh is clear and immediate, his response to the text sensitive and exact.”

The Irish Times, 3 May 2000. The National Chamber Choir/Colin Mawby.

 

‘An angel serves a small breakfast’ : violin concerto no. 2 (1999)

“…violinist Rebecca Hirsch and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales introduced something that would certainly stand repetition: Ian Wilson’s compact, one-movement violin concerto, ‘An angel serves a small breakfast’. The title comes from a painting by Paul Klee. Perhaps comparison with Klee’s whimsical imagery night add new dimensions of meaning; perhaps not. But this exquisitely lyrical and remarkably single-minded piece came over well enough on its own terms. Troubled, yet at the same time beguiling, Wilson’s concerto occasionally echoed the long-breathed, sweet-and-sour melodic writing of Berg, and perhaps Szymanowski, but it never sounded derivative or unsure of itself.”

The Guardian, 20 July 2000.

 

‘What we can see of the sky has fallen’ for orchestra (1999)

“…a rhapsodic idyll with a superb oboe solo.”

The Irish News, 26 April 1999. Camerata Ireland/Barry Douglas.

 

‘Messenger’ : violin concerto no. 1 (1998-99)

“In this highly personal work, the four movements (’Messages’) are influenced by the composer’s experiences, both during the NATO bombardment of Belgrade when he and his family lived there, and subsequently in Ireland. It is, he says, “a testament to fear, anger and determination”. Catherine Leonard was a superb soloist. The violin plays almost all the time and has close relationships with some members of the orchestra, espacially the harp. This solo part calls for the acuity of the chamber musician, as well as an independent personality.

With just over 35 minutes of music, most of it slow, this is a long and predominantly dark piece. It shows the composer’s characteristic blend of crafted detail, concern with form, and disciplined, neo-Romantic expression. The performance was one of the most authoritative premieres I have heard in recent times.”

The Irish Times, 15 January 2001. Catherine Leonard, violin, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Gerhard Markson.

 

‘Limena’ - concerto for piano and strings (1998)

“… the concerto inhabits an unusually subdued world, less a contest of wills between soloist and orchestra than a meditative, joint exploration of half-lit colours and delicate sonorities. The composer launches with a weave of octave-punctuated piano lines, the strings creeping in stealthily to borrow flickers of material from the piano part and sounding faint and remote through the use of metal mutes; it’s a captivating effect. As with any steam of consciousness, there is a risk that the termination will be jarring…perhaps that’s how the composer wants it to be in what is the most impressive work I’ve heard from him.”

The Irish Times, 6 March 1999. Hugh Tinney, piano/Irish Chamber Orchestra.

 

‘Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?’: concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra (1998)

“This was intense music, brilliantly written for the orchestra.”

The Irish Times, 6 May 1999. Gerard McChrystal, saxophone, Ulster Orchestra/John Lubbock. Sonorities Festival, Belfast.

 

‘Phosphorus’ - string trio no. 1 (1997)

“Wilson’s string trio, ‘Phosphorus’, often written in trailing lines and pitting one instrument against the other two, has something of that mode of directness and mood of spirituality that is currently associated with some of the composers of Eastern Europe.”

The Irish Times, 19 May 1998. Psappha. Sonorities Festival, Belfast.

 

‘from the Book of Longing’ – for violin and piano (1996)

“The unusual allure of ‘from the Book of Longing’ was inspired by the New Testament account of the temptation of Christ in the desert. Wilson chose a tangled tango to stand for the temptation, with music of slower sensuality around it, and he teases the ear with many evocative moments in which the music seems just about to – but never does – launch into something familiar.”

The Irish Times, 28 January 2002. Catherine Leonard, vln, Charles Owen, pno. Mostly Modern Series, Dublin.

 

‘Six Days at Jericho’ - for cello and piano (1996)

“Ian Wilson’s ‘Six Days at Jericho’ was a processional piece in which the piano kept up a steady beat and the cello sang above [in] a lyrical line of long notes which tried to break away from the ostinato-like bass. The atmosphere was sombre, but there were moments of illumination, as when the moon shines through a break in the clouds.”

The Irish Times, 11 November 1999. Arun Rao (vcl), David Adams (pno).

 

‘The Seven Last Words’ : piano trio no. 2 (1995)

“Wilson’s substantial trio, which plays continuously for around 30 minutes, is direct of gesture, sometimes spare (he’s not afraid to exploit the simplest of ideas), and highly effective in a way that is reminiscent of Messiaen, but without ever really sounding like the great French master’s work.”

The Irish Times, 24 July 2000. Kammerspiel.

 

‘I sleep at waking’ - for alto saxophone (1995)

“The most rewarding item was the first, Ian Wilson’s ‘I sleep at waking’, a meditation for solo alto saxophone which explored the technical and expressive resources of the instrument.”

The Irish Times, 13 June 1998. Gerard McChrystal (saxophone). Hillsborough Castle, Great Irish Houses Music Festival.

 

‘Rich Harbour’ : concerto for organ and orchestra (1994-95)

“Wilson’s music is always worthy of attention and this exciting new large-scale piece seems set to be one of the most valuable and significant creations of recent years.”

The Sunday Tribune, 30 June 1996.

“Wilson has created some wonderfully atmospheric sounds in this piece. His use of the orchestra is completely secure. There were some beautifully evocative quiet passages. The final climax - featuring virtually full organ, then stark hammer blows from the three percussion players, leading to a reposeful conclusion from the strings - was immensely dramatic.”

The Irish News, 27 October 1997. Peter Sweeney, organ, Ulster Orchestra/Niklas Willen.

 

‘Rise’ for orchestra (1993)

“An ovation was certainly merited for the opening work, ‘Rise’. This was commissioned for the concert by the university [of Ulster] with the help of the Arts Council [of Northern Ireland]. The composer, Ian Wilson, is one of the most interesting of the batch of Irish composers in their twenties and thirties. He packed a lot into the work’s 10-minute span, pushing the orchestra to its limits with a rich rhythmic structure and complex interplay of sonorities.

Wilson (the university’s first doctor of composition) is a confident composer who, unlike some of his contemporaries who drift into abstraction, is not afraid to confront images. ‘Rise’ had them in abundance: church bells, chimes, the belligerence of a storm, shafts of light penetrating the gloom.

At times, Wilson betrayed the influence of minimalism - the hypnotic repetition of short phrases - but his writing has moved forward from this. The evidence was there to be seen in the brilliant use of orchestral colour. Matthias Bamert conducted with vigour. The piece had a great sense of cohesion, and the orchestra rose magnificently to its challenges.”

The Irish News, 25 April 1994. Ulster Orchestra/Matthias Bamert.

 

‘Winter’s Edge’ : string quartet no. 1 (1992)

“Wilson’s work…was a taut piece of writing which explored the stress lines which run between conflict and calm. The atmosphere of the piece (inspired by Paul’s second letter to Timothy) was best encapsulated in the halting melancholic figure on viola beautifully sustained against a wash of high strings at the opening.

But throughout, the instrumental solos, duets and choruses created a series of striking musical images which dissolved almost cinematically to allow the next image to sweep in; until the final moments when a delicate pianissimo faded to nothing.

The musical language had a direct appeal without being patronising or derivative, and the performance was polished and coherent with each of the players bringing a sense of commitment to the music. It was commissioned with the help of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland which I suspect has backed a winner.”

The Irish News, 15 March 1993. Vanbrugh Quartet.

“From the restrained, and entirely intelligible dissonance of its opening bars, through lyrical phrases in conflict with outer disharmony, to the final, ascending strings pointing to an ethereal beyond, ‘Winter’s Edge’ held the imagination in the firm grasp of the genuine artist.”

The Ulster News Letter, 15 March 1993.

“‘Winter’s Edge’ by Ian Wilson opens with such a loud and stunning chord that it seems no music could live up to the possibilities adumbrated there. The second chord, however, sounds a satisfying consequence to the first and imposes a direction which leads into a long and expansive melody for the viola. The melancholy mood is sustained by long-held notes in all registers of the instruments, but there is little danger of being hypnotised by the often ethereal sounds, for there are frequent episodes characterised by insistent rhythms and pungent chords. The handling of musical contrasts and confrontations keep the listener on the alert. ‘Winter’s Edge’… makes a valuable addition to the repertoire.”

The Irish Times, 22 October 1993. Vanbrugh Quartet.

“…Ian Wilson’s chillingly beautiful string quartet…”

The Observer, 11 July 1999. Vanbrugh Quartet.

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