A roaring Adrian Williams composer portrait from the ESO and Kenneth Woods

The members of the English Symphony Orchestra recording Adrian Williams’s Chamber Concerto Portraits of Ned Kelly (1998) with their Principal Conductor & Artistic Director Kenneth Woods. © ESO Digital

Before this project, I had not come across with the full scope of originality found in Adrian Williams’s music. While his name and craft were know to me as one of those largely unsung heroes in TV and film scoring, I had not been aware of his astonishing work for the concert hall. Thus the fabulous musical portrait by Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra, with whom Williams currently works as a Composer-in-Association, is a most welcome affair indeed, shedding light on this astonishing oeuvre with evocative performances of three gorgeous works.

The hour-long programme sets off with Williams’s riveting twenty-two-minute Chamber Concerto Portraits of Ned Kelly (1998). Based on Sidney Nolan famously marvellous paintings of the Australian outlaw and bushranger, Portraits of Ned Kelly is aptly described by the composer as being ”like a modern-day Till Eulenspiegel.” Although labelled as a chamber concerto, the outstanding score assumes a quasi-narrative shape, one of the surreal kind.

Longtime neighbors, Williams’s and Nolan’s storytelling methods go seamlessly hand in hand, and the music perfectly captures the dream-like logic of the original paintings. While there are a lot of trickster tales at play, the music does bear many reflective undercurrents as well. The latter aspects come through more as the Chamber Concerto unravels, adding up to the sonic dramaturgy splendidly.

Scored for flute, doubling piccolo, oboe, doubling cor anglais, clarinet, doubling bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, harp and solo string quintet, Portraits of Ned Kelly is a sonic feast. The music opens with busy, upbeat fortissimo passages, setting the stage for the fantastic events to follow. The angular rhythms begin to take shape, and the instrumental lines are engaged in layered dialogue, conceived in terrific bursts of virtuoso counterpoint.

The musical scenery flows from one instrumental landscape to another with its gravity-defying sonic logic, thus generating a sequence of astoundingly vivid musical portraits, hovering ever on the threshold of hallucinations. In the course of the winding musical arch, the full potential of the eleven players is unleashed, resulting in instrumental story-telling at its best.

The roaring performance by Woods and the ESO players is nothing short of spectacular. The players plunge into the score of Portraits of Ned Kelly with all of their virtuosity and imagination under Woods, providing the listener with an outing of a lifetime. Be it those hyperactive passages of delirium of the twilight-clad glimpses of tranquil, the performance endorses Williams’s invention to the fullest.

The video stream mixes performance footage with Nolan’s paintings in an informative and tasteful manner, further enhancing the deep interrelatedness between Williams’s music and its inspirations. A rollercoaster of brilliance, the ESO and Woods serve the music admirably in spirit and detail.

After the flamboyant textures of the Chamber Concerto, a lyrical meditation ensues in the guise of Russells’ Elegy (2009/2011), a reworking for string orchestra of the slow movement from Williams’s String Quartet No. 4. Written in the memory of director Ken Russell and conductor and pianist John Russell, the ten-minute Elegy constitutes a moving memorial; striking in its eloquent simplicity and utmost connectivity.

In the course of the Elegy, evocative solo passages for viola, violin and cello, respectively, arise from the string orchestra fabric, as if brief, spontaneous, prayers sung in memoriam, and subsequently shared and reflected by the orchestral congregation. Performed with commitment and finesse by the ESO under Woods, Russells’ Elegy comes off as a reflective sonic oasis, awash with lyrical beauty, manifested in wonderfully shaped solo phrases and evocative tutti.

Concluding the programme, a spellbinding take on Williams’s another 1998 masterstroke, Migrations for 22 solo strings is heard. A twenty-minute essay on textural magic, Migrations is a compelling portrait of nature, clad in shattering autumnal resplendence, rooted in its outstanding string writing.

Initiated by a solo violin line, the music is built from various string oscillations, giving rise to a myriad of musical patterns and harmonic fields, with melodic contours gradually emerging out of the fabric. An arch of flickering light and sound-clad colour worthy of Ligeti, Migrations is one of those enthralling musical pieces where the sounds seem to appear in multi-modal guises, evoking visual and tactile imagery of ravishing beauty and longing.

A feast of imagination, the string textures are woven together with sensitivity and detail by Woods and the twenty two string players of the ESO, giving rise to an intense musical meditation, one immediately etched into living memory. The narrative arch is well conceived throughout, resulting in a gripping series of journeys and farewells.

As a whole, the ESO and Woods portrait concert is an immense discovery, providing a splendidly multi-faceted portrait of Adrian Williams’s inspiring work, and whetting the appetite for the future collaboration between the orchestra and their Composer-in-Association. An hour more than well spent, the concert is a must-watch for any contemporary music lover. As usual for the ESO online concerts, the music is accompanied by informative bonus materials, including an extensive composer biography as well as liner notes for each of the three works.

English Symphony Orchestra

Kenneth Woods, conductor

Adrian Williams: Chamber Concerto ”Portraits of Ned Kelly” (1998) based on the paintings by Sidney Nolan

Adrian Williams: Russells’ Elegy (2009/2011) for string orchestra

Adrian Williams: Migrations (1998) for 22 solo strings

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth on 21 September 2020 (Russells’ Elegy & Migrations) and 8 April 2021 (Chamber Concerto)

Relased on the ESO website as a part of the Music from Wyastone -Studio Concert Series

© Jari Kallio

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