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John Woolrich The Sea and Shore 1 July 2004, World première Almeida Opera 2004
Mezzo-soprano Katalin Károlyi
Soprano saxophones Kyle Horch Duncan Ashby
Bass/Contrabass clarinet Gareth Brady
Harp Manon Morris
Viola Bridget Carey
Cellos Zoë Martlew Robin Michael
Percussion Richard Benjafield

John Woolrich (b. 1954) is a curious case, seeming deeply pessimistic whilst celebrating his 50th birthday; neither previous concerts in its honour had been fun events (see Schubert Ensemble - - Let's hope John Woolrich will cheer up with the 50 hurdle behind him! - - and the Orchestra of St John's tribute - - a disaster on almost all counts).

In a pre-concert interview before the concert Woolrich acknowledged his reputation for concert programming as a branch of 'composition'. This sequence of his choice to prelude his latest work for singer and ensemble was so gloomy that he expressed the hope that the audience would not go out and kill itself before that item was reached!

Feldman's Bass Clarinet and Percussion was, mercifully, only 20 mins, and was intriguing in the conjunction of wisps of melodic fragments, 'reiterated and varied' (Roger Heaton) and supported by subtle percussion, but not helped by the screening of David Batchelor's Found Monochromes of London - photos taken in urban wasteland, each with a blanked out poster, so they seemed.

Samuel Beckett's TV film Eh Joe (1966) was then shown; a lone figure in a bare bedroom listening to a menacing, accusatory Voice in his head - projection and sound were perfect. The audience then departed to the bar, not to commit suicide; I detected there instead a compensatory mood of hectic over-reaction to the miseries just endured.

The Sea and Shore sets fragmentary texts about death and loss and the difficulties of expressing overwhelming feelings; a work sui generis (as were Schönberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Walton's Facade, to mention a couple that came to mind) neither a conventional song cycle nor an operatic scena. I suspect it is the most important and original of Woolrich's compositions since my own favourites, Bitter Fruit (the complete 85 mins score, not the later 20 mins Suite) and the seminal Pianobooks (the link, which you may have just passed by, is to Joanna MacGregor's masterclass focusing on John Woolrich's Pianobooks).

But The Sea and Shore was not heard to best advantage in this world première performance! It was designed and 'directed' by Charles Edwards, with a gauze curtain separating the singer from the unique instrumental ensemble. Their visibility varied with the lighting, and sometimes there were sea sounds from the back of the auditorium. None of this helped Woolrich's stark and continually arresting music, a half-hour score full of surprises; music stripped bare and delivering a powerful punch - one unforgettable image was the two cellists playing a long high, intense passage in unison; extraordinary!

But it was sunk by being given in a fashionably darkened theatre, so that those without torches could neither hear nor refer to the texts, many of them given in Woolrich's indispensable programme note (Elizabeth Bishop's eponymous short story The Sea and Shore, which explains why the stage was littered with paper and piles of lever-arch files, was not itself set to music). The notated heightened-speech vocalisation was entrusted to the Hungarian mezzo Katalin Károlyi, who had been admired previously in Sciarrino's Infinito Nero at Almeida Opera, and singing Ligeti with the Amadinda Percussion Ensemble in Huddersfield and Blackheath. The Sea and Shore is a 'word-driven' work and she was quite unable to put across the English texts intelligibly, which put most listeners, who would not have had time to absorb the words beforehand, at a serious disadvantage. Woolrich's vocal style is new and original, and should come across quite easily; a little electronic enhancement might help, but should not really be necessary.

I look forward to hearing The Sea and Shore again soon, in concert, broadcast or CD, as too Woolrich's magnum opus Bitter Fruit - I fear that the opportunity to film the Trestle Company's production may have passed irretrievably?

John WOOLRICH Bitter Fruit Trestle Theatre Company/Toby Wilsher & Russell Dean, with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Pierre-André Valade. Queen Elizabeth Hall, 1 December 2000 (PGW, S&H)

The first year in the new millennium will not have yielded a more significant music theatre event than this wordless play within a play, created for the 'theatre of masks' Trestle Theatre Company. John Woolrich felt liberated not to have a text. Their collaboration circumvented the frequent operatic disjunction of libretto and music jarring with the theatrical production. Woolrich wrote 'a huge piece of music' on the theme of Vulcan - - his full length score conceived to have a strong life of its own, and to be susceptible to other re-interpretations. - - Woolrich is master of the pared down aphoristic statement, his pieces often brief and elliptical, with a disconcerting paucity of notes on the page. His delightful Piano Books, premiered at the Hoxton New Music Festival which he curates (a spin-off from the Almeida Opera Festival) have been published recently by Faber Music and offer a good way into his musical thinking.

Bitter Fruit demonstrates the same characteristics, and its authorship is instantly recognisable from the beginning, but its initial understatement proves illusory as the drama of the play-within-a-play develops towards its dreadful conclusion, with a stage full of corpses as in a Restoration Tragedy, and a final conflagration matched by dramatic music with its own powerful momentum. - - This is indeed a big score and one that would repay listening to alone; a CD of this authoritative realisation is to be hoped for. - - The ingenious staging, designed for dismantling and reassembling for one-night stands, would lend itself well to photographing; what chance of a DVD of this auspicious premiere production of one of John Woolrich's most important scores?

The Sea and its Shore
Geoff Brown in The Times:
DECIDING which if any genre John Woolrich's new The Sea and its Shore belongs to was the least of the audience's problems at the start of this year's Almeida Opera showcase - - the director Charles Edwards presented us with, if not an opera, at least a dramatic scena - - we needed much greater audibility. Unpredictable, inventive, concentrated, kaleidoscopic, Woolrich's music stayed close to his expressive best - - you had to fight to hear any of the assembled words (Robert Walser, Mallarm é, Schumann, Emily Brontë and others: quite a mixed grill)- - few of Károlyi's feelings penetrated far into the auditorium. Still, we could certainly enjoy the instrumentalists, from the two cellists eerily vibrating in unison near the start to the percussionist Richard Benjafield, conducting with a drumstick in between assaulting his kit. I look forward to assessing this frustrating work in a concert performance. - - projected images from David Batchelor's Found Monochromes of London ultimately proved more hindrance than help, but at least there were no words that we couldn't hear.

© Peter Grahame Woolf