Composer Portrait - Adrian Williams
Music from Wyastone - Studio Concert Series

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Adrian Williams  Chamber Concerto “Portraits of Ned Kelly” based on the paintings of Sidney Nolan
Adrian Williams  Russells’ Elegy for String Orchestra
Adrian Williams  Migrations for 22 Solo Strings


English Symphony Orchestra
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Conductor: Kenneth Woods

With thanks to the National Gallery of Australia and The Sidney Nolan Trust for the use of images featured in “Portraits of Ned Kelly”.

About this Concert​

Adrian Williams

We present a special concert of music by the orchestra’s current “John McCabe Composer-in-Association”, Adrian Williams.

Williams, who succeeded David Matthews as Composer-in-Association in 2020, came to the attention of the ESO’s Artistic Director, Kenneth Woods, fairly recently. “Adrian and I met at an ESO concert in Cheltenham a couple of years ago,” says Woods. “Although we’d been acquainted on social media for some time, I realised when we met that I didn’t know his music. After that encounter, I checked out his website, and within 24 hours I was convinced he was one of the finest composers of our time and I immediately asked him to succeed David at the ESO.”

Williams came to early renown after winning the prestigious Menuhin Prize in competition. Lord Menuhin, who also served as Principal Guest Conductor of the ESO during the 1990’s, described the young Williams as “a master of intricate patterns and forms”. Williams showed precocious gifts as a pianist (he is particularly known for his ability to improvise), and his talents as both pianist and composer were nurtured by mentors including Lennox Berkeley and John Russell. In the 1980’s, he founded the Presteigne Festival on the Welsh-English borders where he has lived for most of his adult life. In addition to many commissions from the BBC, he has enjoyed long partnerships with the cellist Raphael Wallfisch (for whom he wrote his Cello Concerto, commissioned by Roger Wright for BBC Radio 3 and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, in 2009), the celebrated chamber choir I Fagiolini and their director Robert Hollingworth and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta under Candida Thompson. He has also worked closely with the cellists of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

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Kenneth Woods introduces the music of Adrian Williams

About the Composer - Adrian Williams

Hailed by former ESO Principal Guest Conductor Yehudi Menuhin as “a master of intricate patterns and forms,” Adrian Williams was born in 1956 and showed precocious talent at the piano from the age of four when he began spontaneously improvising. Lessons began at 5 but he only showed improvement with reading music at around the age of ten, when he began to experiment with composition. His first performed piece was a G minor piano trio and a carol, both written when he was 12 and performed at his school. He developed quickly in both piano and composition through his teens and at 13 began composition consultations in London with Lennox Berkeley. A large scale work for three choirs and ensemble ‘The Bridge’ was performed at the Royal Academy of Music as part of the RAM’s 150th anniversary celebrations in 1972. In 1974 he became a double scholar at the Royal College of Music where he won awards for both piano and composition, in 1976 the director of the RCM Sir David Willcocks  conducting his ‘Symphonic Studies’ with the RCM orchestra. A Leverhulme scholarship enabled him to continue at the RCM until 1978, the year he won the international Menuhin Prize for composers.

At around this time he began working with the arranger Peter Knight, and through this learned much about the pop world including pop scoring for tv shows. These skills equipped him well in future years when scoring for TV and film.

The years that followed saw a period as Composer in Residence at Charterhouse School from 1980  during which his music underwent a stylistic reassessment. The outcome was a tougher harmonic language that although more adventurous in its range and scope, retained an underlying melodic vein that has always remained central to his music. Several important works were to emerge from this period including the String Quartet no 2 (for the Chilingirian Quartet), a remarkable uninterrupted span of thirty eight minutes and the intricately orchestrated symphonic poem Tess for Vernon Handley and the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra.

During the eighties a move to the Welsh borders saw Williams find his spiritual home, along with the peace of mind and creative impetus for many of his most vital works. Amongst them is the piece spawned by his winning the Guinness Prize for Composition, the cantata after Louis MacNeice Not Yet Born, two works inspired by Sidney Nolan Images of a Mind for cello and piano, inspired by the 1986 self-portrait, and the Chamber Concerto, ‘Portraits of Ned Kelly’ (Brighton Festival commission), the Cantata after Alun Lewis The Ways of Going (Hay Festival commission) and Dies Irae, the latter a BBC commission that in its power of expression remains one of Williams’ most personal statements.

It was during his early years in the Welsh borders that Williams became the founding light of the Presteigne Festival, an enterprising event that continues to thrive and maintains a strong commitment to contemporary music. His final festival as director in 1992 coincided with the UK’s European Arts Festival and participated with a programme entitled ‘Open Borders’ based around the commissioning of works by young composers from all (then) twelve member states of the European Union.

The multi-faceted, even eclectic nature of Adrian Williams’ music has also seen him branch into film and television, whilst his absorption of influences as diverse as English song and elements of jazz and minimalism has seen his catalogue of major works grow to demonstrate a richly compelling creative voice.

Ever searching for new creative horizons, Williams’ recent scores, including Maelienydd (2008) for Chamber Orchestra, the String Quartet no 4, the 2016 Piano Trio (Piano Trio Society and Gloucester Music Society joint commission) and especially the symphony currently in progress, exhibit a deeply-felt emotional core, conjuring with the atmosphere and wild, open spaces of the composer’s Welsh Borderland surroundings with a renewed sense of wonder and mystery.

The Cello Concerto (2009), commissioned by the BBC, marks the culmination of Adrian Williams’ long standing relationship with Raphael Wallfisch, an ardent champion of the composer’s works for cello. Wallfisch recorded Images of a mind for Metronome recordings with the composer, a disc which also includes another work commissioned for him Spring Requiem and the first ever recording of the early prize-winning Sonata for solo ‘cello (1976-7)

Continuing to be important are his fruitful collaborations with the celebrated vocal group I Fagiolini and its director Robert Hollingworth. To date there are nine commissioned works for the ensemble including the latest Shaping The Invisible using a newly-commissioned poem by Welsh national poet Gillian Clarke and issued on the Coro label.

Also significant are his connections with Holland and Poland. Over several decades he has fulfilled many works and arrangements for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and its charismatic leader Candida Thompson, including Migrations for 22 solo strings dating from 1998 and a new Concerto for Strings in one movement, jointly commissioned with the Presteigne Festival. Among his arrangements for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta are versions for string orchestra and baritone of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebt and Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad made for the great American baritone Thomas Hampson.

The most substantial work from Holland has been the large-scale cantata for chorus, children’s choir, soloists and chamber orchestra The Idea Of Peace. Commissioned by the Toonkunstkoor Utrecht for the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht, with a libretto compiled by Arjen Eigjenraam, it was premiered in St Paul’s Cathedral, London as part of the 2013 City Of London Festival, and subsequently in Vredenburg, Utrecht the same year.

Two commissions emanated from important collaborations in Poland in 2017 & 2018, a large-scale chamber work for eight players The Diminishing Minutes of Peace, based on an essay by Joseph Conrad. for the Art Deco Group in Warsaw, and Spectrum, a concerto for bassoon and string orchestra with percussion and harp, premiered in June 2018 in Poznan by Arek Adamczyk as part of a celebration of the composer’s music, which included all his music for bassoon, dating back to 1979.

For the past three years Adrian has lived and worked on the borders of Wales close to Hergest Ridge which he considers a perfect creative environment.

Learn more on Adrian’s website here.

About the Music - Chamber Concerto “Portraits of Ned Kelly” based on the paintings of Sidney Nolan

Williams’ Portrait’s of Ned Kelly, which opens the concert, was one of two works inspired by his friendship with the late painter, Sidney Nolan, whose last home in rural Herefordshire made he and Williams neighbours. “I used to practise on his piano,” said Williams. “He was a complex man and a powerful personality.”

Woods describes the work as “brilliant and exceptionally virtuosic,” noting that “Adrian described the piece to me as a being ‘like a modern-day Till Eulenspiegel’, to which I added ‘on acid.’ It’s witty, it’s surreal, it’s thrilling, it’s fantastical, and, somehow, in the end it’s very moving.” The work was inspired by Nolan’s famous paintings of the Australian outlaw and bushranger, Ned Kelly.

About the Music - Russells’ Elegy for String Orchestra

This short elegiac piece was adapted in 2011 from the slow movement of Williams’s fourth string quartet (2009) in memory of two people with the same surname who meant a lot to the Composer.

The idea for the piece came following the death of the great film
director Ken Russell (1927-2011) with whom Williams worked with briefly in the 1990’s and shared the same love of late romantic British music and wild places. The other, John Russell (1916-1990), conductor, pianist and one-time close friend of Gerald Finzi, was one of the Composer’s teachers at the Royal College of Music who became a mentor and father-figure in the 1970’s and 80’s.

For Adrian Williams, both ‘Russells’ had their roots in a past time and its great composers, a time he never knew yet for which he still feels a deep nostalgia.

About the Music - Migrations for 22 Solo Strings

Kenneth Woods describes Williams’ Migrations for 22 Solo Strings, as “one of the very greatest works in the rich canon of English string music.”

“Adrian’s connection to nature is a recurring theme throughout his work,” says Woods. “In this piece, his meditation on the migrations of birds evokes both wonder and sorrow, and a profound mixture of connection and isolation. It’s one of the most moving works I’ve come across, from any generation, in a long, long time, and you can see in the performance the depth of the players’ emotional engagement with it as well.”


Classical Music Daily - 12th June 2021

Keith Bramich

Human history is complex. Changes are often not gradual but sudden, in response to game-changing world events.

As children, distant human past can often seem irrelevant, but as we travel through our lives and experience some of these happenings for ourselves, our perspective begins to change. As an example, my first direct involvement with history was the fall of the Berlin Wall and its various knock-on effects, changing the shape of Europe.

Since then, a whole series of dramas, such as the Yugoslav Wars, 9/11 and other acts of terrorism, the Iraq War, the Arab Spring leading to civil war in Libya, Fukushima, the ongoing conflict in Palestine, Crimea, #MeTooBlack Lives Matter, Brexit and, most recently, the Coronavirus pandemic, have all left their mark on an increasingly globalised society.

Even more complicated is each generation’s re-writing of history. Sometimes this can mean sudden modifications and omissions, from a new perspective. Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Jimmy Savile’s BBC, Harvey Weinstein, the pre-Joe Biden US Presidency and the toppling of slave trader statues all come to mind, as do various hopefuls from the current government of part of a small archipelago near France. Will these colourful characters be forgotten forever, or will some of them be re-invented by later generations along the lines of Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, Jesse James or Dick Turpin?

As we travel back in history, so each period’s heroes and anti-heroes have been re-invented and re-imagined more and more times. Take Robin Hood, for example. Was he a force for good or evil? The answer clearly depends on one’s political leanings, personal wealth and colour preferences, as well as which version(s) of the legend one has experienced. There clearly was no Errol Flynn nor music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold in the fourteenth century.

Then there’s the case of one Edward Kelly. Born in Victoria, Australia in December 1854 to Irish parents, life’s forces were stacked up against the young lad right from birth. His father, transported from Ireland, died shortly after serving his prison sentence. This left Ned, the third of eight children and the eldest male, as the family’s breadwinner, and so began a colourful life of murderous crime as outlaw, gang leader and bushranger which ended, aged twenty-five, when he was captured and hanged following a shootout with the police. Kelly, notoriously wearing a bullet-proof suit at the time, was his gang’s only survivor of the gun battle, and with his reported final words on the scaffold of ‘such is life’, he was catapulted, in Pythonesque fashion, straight into Australian legend.

As with Robin Hood, Ned Kelly’s hero/anti-hero status is unclear and vehemently argued by Australians, past and present. It seems that this ambiguity is a requirement for legendhood. Kelly, an icon of the Irish Catholic, working-class struggle against British colonial establishment, is now an international cult figure, and his story has been told countless times in various media. His many on-screen appearances, none involving Flynn or Korngold, to my knowledge, began with the world’s first dramatic feature length film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, a silent movie from 1906. Various incidents from the Kelly legend also inspired a now famous series of 1940s Australian paintings by Victoria-born Sidney Nolan (1917-1992).

The works are, in fact, the best-known of Nolan’s diverse output, and his angular depictions of Kelly in armour have themselves become an Australian icon. Although they depict various episodes from Ned Kelly’s short life, Nolan produced stylised and generalised images of betrayal, injustice and love. See what I mean about the re-inventing of history and legends?

Sydney Nolan moved to England, initially London, in 1951, and in 1983 he moved to Herefordshire, making his home and studio at The Rodd, north of Kington, near the Welsh border. In 1985 the Sidney Nolan Trust was founded. It was designed to support artists and musicians, and to provide exhibition space for work by Nolan and others. Nolan met the young English composer Adrian Williams (born 1956), one of the founders of the Presteigne Festival, who was living in the area, and who used to practise on Nolan’s piano.

In 1998, Williams, fascinated by Nolan’s work, wrote the chamber concerto Portraits of Ned Kelly, based on Nolan’s paintings, and this concerto received a rare performance recently, streamed last night (11 June 2021) via the English Symphony Orchestra (ESO) website. The performance was recorded on 8 April 2021 at Wyastone Hall, Monmouth, Herefordshire UK by members of the English Symphony Orchestra, guest leader Emily Davis, conducted by Kenneth Woods.

Before attempting to describe the music and the performance, I should, for reasons of transparency, tell you that I’ve known Adrian Williams personally since 1989, and that I’m writing this without access to scores. Williams describes the work as a kind of modern-day Till Eulenspiegel – another legendary hero/anti-hero, notice – and conductor Ken Woods adds the words ‘on acid’, also calling it ‘brilliant and exceptionally virtuosic’. The work is scored for eleven instruments – single strings with woodwind quintet (plus usual doublings) and harp. Judging by the high standard of performance, I suspect that quite a bit of rehearsal time went into making this recording.

The video stream of the performance contains views of many of Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings – albeit only in very low resolution – and the music, running for just over twenty minutes in what sounds like one continuous movement, is extraordinary for its variety of moods and depiction of the various fantastic-sounding scenes in an almost second-Viennese-school style which sounds, to me, extraordinarily different from any of Williams’ other works, or at least those that I know. It’s as if Williams has been gripped and transformed by the contents of these Australian scenes. (Another re-invention of the legend?)

Williams is the ESO’s current John McCabe Composer-in-Association, and has drawn the short straw, unfortunately, by holding this position during the current pandemic period, although Ken Woods has also programmed other works by and arranged by Williams recently. The title of last night’s concert was A Composer Portrait: Adrian Williams, and it’s a huge pity that this couldn’t have been a live concert with a local audience. There were two other works on the programme, recorded on a different occasion – 21 September 2020 – with an exactly twice larger incarnation of the English Symphony Orchestra, this time strings only, still conducted by Ken Woods, but this time led by Zoë Beyers. It was great to see friends Alice McVeigh and Anna Joubert at the back of the cello section!

The nearly ten-minute Russells’ Elegy for string orchestra is a 2011 adaptation of the slow movement of Williams’ String Quartet No 4 (2009). The title refers to the passing of two men who have been important in Adrian Williams’ career. Williams worked briefly with film director Ken Russell (1927-2011) in the 1990s and they discovered a shared love for wild places and late Romantic British music. Conductor, pianist and close friend of Finzi, John Russell (1916-1990) was one of Williams’ teachers at the Royal College of Music. (Read more about Williams’ association with John Russell here.) The music, with its important viola solo, and in a much more traditional style, is mostly quiet, reflective, poised and pastoral-sounding, but with a climactic outpouring of grief towards the end.

Lastly, in this superb fifty-minute online concert, Migrations for twenty-two solo string instruments, very different again, is a fragile and almost minimalist-sounding meditation on the migration of birds – not humans (although at one point in the music I thought this could also represent human migration, and we shouldn’t be big-headed enough to always treat homo sapiens differently from other species). It’s well worth quoting conductor Ken Woods here:

In this piece, his meditation on the migrations of birds evokes both wonder and sorrow, and a profound mixture of connection and isolation. It’s one of the most moving works I’ve come across, from any generation, in a long, long time, and you can see in the performance the depth of the players’ emotional engagement with it as well.

Ken Woods discovered Williams’ music fairly recently, spelling out what those of us close to him have known for some time:

I checked out his website, and within 24 hours I was convinced he was one of the finest composers of our time and I immediately asked him to succeed David [Matthews] at the ESO.

It’s certainly time for Adrian Williams’ music to become more widely known. Last night’s concert is available to stream free-of-charge from the ESO website until Tuesday. After that, it’s available with many other valuable ESO digital concerts via an ESO subscription. - 14th June 2021

Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s latest online concert was devoted to the music of Adrian Williams (b1956), a composer whose long and wide-ranging career has resulted in an output -championed by the likes of cellist Raphael Wallfisch and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta – which covers almost all the major genres and with a stylistic diversity that does not preclude a more unified or personal manner from emerging. Such was evident from the three highly contrasted works featured in this programme which, between them, constituted a most revealing portrait.

A programme, moreover, which was launched ‘at the deep end’ with the Chamber Concerto ‘Portraits of Ned Kelly’. The artist Sidney Nolan was during his later years a neighbour of the composer, his powerfully imagist and pointedly un-romanticized evocations of the Australian outlaw directly influencing this music. Its pungent opening sets out the basic premises – not least the pitting of wind quintet (with doublings) against string quartet, with double-bass and harp adding subtle contributions as the piece unfolds. A more inward central section builds to a febrile culmination – after which, the wind and strings are gradually drawn into a monody that brings about a resigned if hardly serene close. Impressive, too, is Williams’s handling of often fractious material such that a clear formal and expressive trajectory is always evident.

Williams has already contributed several works as the ESO’s current John McCabe Composer -in-Association, Russells’ Elegy likely one of his most directly appealing as well as being a commemoration of the pianist-conductor John Russell and the director Ken Russell (thus the plural of the title). Audibly in a long lineage of British works for strings, it alternates between passages for the ensemble and those in which solo strings dominate with no mean subtlety or finesse – before culminating in a sustained tutti that fades longingly if inevitably into silence.

That the ESO’s music director Kenneth Woods should have described Migrations as ‘‘one of the very greatest works in the rich canon of string music’’ is not mere hyperbole. Scored for 22 solo strings and inspired by migratory patterns of birds in the environs of the composer’s Herefordshire home, this substantial piece unfolds with a seamlessness of purpose in which cluster-like outbursts of great emotional force are integrated into melodic writing of distilled poignancy. The textures are highly variegated while always consistent – not least in the final minutes when, after a fateful pause, solo strings exchange interjections of an intensity which gradually subsides into fatalistic acceptance. In conception if not in content, Migrations can be compared to Strauss’s Metamorphosen for the sheer precision and eloquence of its writing.

It helped, of course, that here (as throughout the programme) the ESO was so committed to this idiom, rendering the often dense and exacting nature of its writing with an unwavering commitment. All three works are to feature on a future release of the composer’s music, and Williams has recently completed a large-scale symphony that is scheduled for this orchestra’s 21st Century Symphony Project towards the end of this year. In the meantime, listeners yet to make the acquaintance of his distinctive and emotionally engaging music are urged to do so.

Adventures In Music - 24th June 2021

Jari Kallio

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.

Production Information

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, on 21st September 2020 (Russells’ Elegy & Migrations for 22 solo strings) and 8th April 2021 (Portraits of Ned Kelly)

Producer: Phil Rowlands
Videographer: Tim Burton
Orchestra Manager: Simon Brittlebank / The Music Agency
Stage Manager: Ed Hayes / The Music Agency