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Culture: Celebrate old and the new; John Woolrich talks to Terry Grimley about his new music for old instruments.

Byline: Terry Grimley

What is it about today's composers and old instruments? This week Birmingham audiences can hear two of our leading period orchestras playing pieces which are brand new or as good as.

Tonight, the Orchestra of Age of Enlightenment, in its programme at the Barber Institute, includes a piece by Jonathan Dove, inspired by the 15th century Middleham Jewel. Its world premiere took place only last night at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

On Saturday, Symphony Hall is the location for the world premiere of John Woolrich's Arcangelo, in a concert otherwise devoted to baroque composers from the Academy of Ancient Music.

The piece was commissioned by AAM to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli.

Following the recent tradition of period groups commissioning new music, this follows earlier pieces for AAM by David Bedford and John Tavener.

The brief was simply to write a piece in response to Corelli's music, and Woolrich focused on the form of the concerto grosso - a series of short movements in which groups of solo instruments are played off against the main (tutti) body of the orchestra - with which Corelli is particularly associated.

The lyrical dimension of the Italian's music, he felt, had been exhaustively explored by Tippett.

'So what I looked at was structure, both in the sense of the grouping of instruments and how the sections follow each other. There's that feeling in baroque suites that you're not going anywhere in particular, but you enjoy the journey.

'For this piece I have a tutti group and two solo groups, one a trio of oboes, the other two violins and cello.'

What are the particular challenges of writing for original instruments?

'You can't write dynamics - they're either on or off. Usually these early wind instruments aren't so controllable. When the oboes play loud they really cut through, but nuances you won't get.

'We tend to think things improve with time. Modern instruments have improved technically so that they're not so hard to play, but you do lose something. The earlier instruments are the closer they are to their origins, and you can almost smell it or taste it.'

This premiere is another link to Birmingham for Woolrich, who has written two pieces, Taking Wings and Bitter Fruit, for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. He has just been appointed artistic associate with the group, forming an triumvirate with artistic director Stephen Newbould and artistic adviser Sir Simon Rattle.

'I've always seen programming as a creative activity which parallels composition - it's what Boulez or Claudio Abbado do,' observes Woolrich, who founded the Hoxton Music Days concerts in London.

Taking Wings was one of the earliest commissions for BCMG after it was founded by CBSO cellists Simon Clugston and Ulrich Heinen in 1989, and this has helped cement a mutually affectionate relationship.

'It's a family atmosphere that gets better. It started out very nicely because it came from the players rather than being imposed from the top. These organisations usually have a shelf-life of ten or 20 years but but this one seems to have gone through that.

'It's very interesting, Birmingham becoming so important musically. I think Birmingham is a special town, and through Simon Clugston and BCMG and Simon Rattle it does have an audience.

'London doesn't have an audience. There are more people in London but you can't get them out, except for a specialist new music audience. But in Birmingham there's more of a sense of a general public.'

The Academy of Ancient Music gives the World premiere of John Woolrich's Arcangelo at Symphony Hall on Saturday (8pm), alongside music by Purcell, Bach and Corelli (Box office: 0121 780 3333).
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 26, 2003
Words:613
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