Clarinet Concerto

May 2019 saw the eagerly anticipated world premiere of Liverpool-based composer Ian Stephens’ new clarinet Concerto, written for his wife, Mandy Burvill. Mandy spent many years as the 2nd and Principal E-flat clarinettist of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra before embarking on a solo career that sees her performing with orchestras and chamber ensembles up and down the country alongside devoting time to outreach work including Mersey Care’s award-winning Musician in Residence programme. The Concerto, the second of two works composed by Ian for Mandy in quick succession, are the result of commissions from people who have grown to be close friends with both soloist and composer over many years. The Concerto is commissioned by Kensington Chamber Orchestra, who performed the premiere under the baton of Tom Seligman, with funding from the Nicholas Berwin Charitable Trust and Damian Edwards. The partnering clarinet quintet was premiered by Mandy in November 2018 with the Fitzwilliam Quartet. But what of the Concerto itself? It’s a work set to delight listeners, orchestral players and soloist alike as Ian places his trademark styles of lyricism and humour throughout the piece. The expressive, haunting clarinet opening speaks of hopes and dreams for the work to come before bounding into a set of jazzy playoffs against the orchestra. Whilst technically challenging for both soloist and orchestra, they are rewarding in the joy they bring to the audience. The piece has an autobiographical backstory that follows Ian and Mandy’s courtship, marriage and the arrival of their children. The nervous energy and magic of the early days of their relationship is well represented musically and provides an excellent outset for the work. The second movement, following the story, brings our couple to their wedding day, a definite high point in their lives and mirrored in the music. The climactic chords reach a definitive peak and the listener can almost see the wedding ceremony taking place before their eyes. It’s a delight that Stephens has been so open to allow the performers and audience to experience such a special occasion, and a sign of his careful selection of musical language to represent these events. The final movement returns to the nervous energy of the first movement but this time bigger and bolder than before, if that were possible. Gone are the jitters of early courtship to be replaced with a much more exciting and equally terrifying prospect – children! The music is laced with phrases that stutter into being before quickly disappearing, replaced with wilder ideas. The anxiety is palpable but the delight at meeting the new additions to the family is cause for celebration. The music contains references to a lullaby written for their children when they were young and is clearly very personal in nature. In a whirlwind of excitement with a virtuosic glissando on the clarinet, the Concerto reaches its climax and, at the premiere, was greeted with rapturous applause by a highly appreciative audience calling clarinettist, composer and conductor to return to their stage. The smiles prevailing on the faces of the orchestral players behind, clearly declared the fun they’d had along the way and I can well imagine the piece turning up in future concerts for them in the not-too-distant future. For those who enjoy a challenge, Ian has codified dates into each movement that represent key events, such as the trumpets and horns in the climax of the first movement playing out 1998, the year Mandy and Ian first met. Spotting where these musical date references occur adds extra depth to the piece for listeners and performers to enjoy, reflecting the mischievous nature of the composer who likes adding ‘Easter Eggs’ to his works.
David Mintz and Elizabeth McLaughlin , Clarinet and Saxophone , Autumn 2019

And In The End

The involvement of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra was the coup de grâce. Led by conductor Richard Balcombe with arrangements by Ian Stephens, they did not replicate George Martin string parts (only a handful of Beatles originals had those) but enhanced and emphasised particular melodic and harmonic elements. The sheer weight and drama the 80-piece orchestra brought to Lennon's rock epic I Want You (She's So Heavy) was breathtaking.
Neil McCormick , The Telegraph , 18 October 2019

Tunnel Vision: Suite for Brass Band

Ian Stephens’ ‘Tunnel Vision’ - a condensed 12 minute suite originated from his 85 minute multi-movement work ‘Super Slow Way’: A Rhapsody to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal’ was a fascinating delight.  A thoughtful, meandering journey of a long lost social history, it lost none of its engrossing texture in its compact form, the pacing beautifully realised all the way to a languid, tranquil ending.
Malcolm Wood , 4barsrest.com

Springhead Echoes

In the second half we were treated to two premieres of Ian Stephens’ chamber works – Springhead Echoes, a three-movement string quartet written in memory of Rosalind Richards, and his new Clarinet Quintet, commissioned in memory of the formidable amateur clarinettist, Brian Richards. It was clear that the Fitzwilliam String Quartet loved performing Springhead Echoes – a mature and demanding chamber work, which seemed colourfully evocative of both the countryside in which Rosalind made much of her chamber music playing as a violinist, and the inherited tradition of string quartet writing. Ian has a fluency in his writing that integrates inspiration from the classical quartet tradition, folk modes and idioms, some with a particularly eastern European flavour, and jazz. This isn’t to say that his work is any way derivative, but rather that it wears its heritage with a confident pride. Similarly the Clarinet Quintet starts with an engaging riff that could be equally at home in a minimalist or jazz work. From this emerges a fully developed episodic, stratified exploration of this dance tune and more lyrical second subject, through contrasting con moto and tranquillo sections, which gradually builds into a more rhapsodic section for the clarinet. The writing is gloriously idiomatic for the clarinet and exploits the different voices of the instrument. The second movement dances from the very first string pizzicato, alternating duple and triple meters, and beautifully mirrored in the staccato clarinet entry. There are virtuosic flourishes which appeared to skip effortlessly under Mandy’s fingers, and the quintet as a whole had such a clear and tight ensemble playing that it was immediately possible to hear and understand the intricate rhythmic and melodic interplay woven throughout the work. Ian was inspired by both Brian’s love of chamber music making and one of his favourite works, Beethoven’s Fidelio, integrating elements of the Prisoners’ Chorus ‘O welche Lust’: Oh, what joy, in the open air / Freely to breathe again! / Up here alone is life! / The dungeon is a grave As with all the best chamber music, whether including clarinet or not, the performers appeared to breathe as one and it was a truly joyous performance, opportunity to remember Brian and Rosalind Richards, and fundraising event for Parkinson’s UK and The Alzheimer’s Society. Stephens’ Clarinet Quintet is a major new contribution to the Clarinet Quintet repertoire. Ideal for advanced players, it is beautifully idiomatically written for the clarinet, and although made to sound effortless at the hands of Mandy Burvill and the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, has some technical demands both in the clarinet part and ensemble playing. It makes an excellent companion piece if you are programming the Mozart or Brahms quintets, and is about 16 minutes long in three movements.
Ian Noonan , Clarinet and Saxophone , Spring 2019

Clarinet Quintet

In the second half we were treated to two premieres of Ian Stephens’ chamber works – Springhead Echoes, a three-movement string quartet written in memory of Rosalind Richards, and his new Clarinet Quintet, commissioned in memory of the formidable amateur clarinettist, Brian Richards. It was clear that the Fitzwilliam String Quartet loved performing Springhead Echoes – a mature and demanding chamber work, which seemed colourfully evocative of both the countryside in which Rosalind made much of her chamber music playing as a violinist, and the inherited tradition of string quartet writing. Ian has a fluency in his writing that integrates inspiration from the classical quartet tradition, folk modes and idioms, some with a particularly eastern European flavour, and jazz. This isn’t to say that his work is any way derivative, but rather that it wears its heritage with a confident pride. Similarly the Clarinet Quintet starts with an engaging riff that could be equally at home in a minimalist or jazz work. From this emerges a fully developed episodic, stratified exploration of this dance tune and more lyrical second subject, through contrasting con moto and tranquillo sections, which gradually builds into a more rhapsodic section for the clarinet. The writing is gloriously idiomatic for the clarinet and exploits the different voices of the instrument. The second movement dances from the very first string pizzicato, alternating duple and triple meters, and beautifully mirrored in the staccato clarinet entry. There are virtuosic flourishes which appeared to skip effortlessly under Mandy’s fingers, and the quintet as a whole had such a clear and tight ensemble playing that it was immediately possible to hear and understand the intricate rhythmic and melodic interplay woven throughout the work. Ian was inspired by both Brian’s love of chamber music making and one of his favourite works, Beethoven’s Fidelio, integrating elements of the Prisoners’ Chorus ‘O welche Lust’: Oh, what joy, in the open air / Freely to breathe again! / Up here alone is life! / The dungeon is a grave As with all the best chamber music, whether including clarinet or not, the performers appeared to breathe as one and it was a truly joyous performance, opportunity to remember Brian and Rosalind Richards, and fundraising event for Parkinson’s UK and The Alzheimer’s Society. Stephens’ Clarinet Quintet is a major new contribution to the Clarinet Quintet repertoire. Ideal for advanced players, it is beautifully idiomatically written for the clarinet, and although made to sound effortless at the hands of Mandy Burvill and the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, has some technical demands both in the clarinet part and ensemble playing. It makes an excellent companion piece if you are programming the Mozart or Brahms quintets, and is about 16 minutes long in three movements.
Ian Noonan , Clarinet and Saxophone , Spring 2019

Salisbury Service: Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis

I was really pleased with the way my choristers and men rose to the challenges of this work. At first sight, it seemed to be very complicated but as we grew to understand and learn it, we were able to discern its stylistic unity and the composer’s particular way of writing for voices. It meant that the Salisbury Service was easier than it looked and, once we had mastered a section, that section really stuck in the memories of the choir members. The organist had a lot of fun with the detailed organ writing too.
David Halls, Director of Music, Salisbury Cathedral

Pied Beauty

I thought your setting of this striking poetry displayed great sensitivity to the words, and also amplified them appropriately – never an easy task with a text which can, rightly, stand on its own. Although not without difficulty, the music can relatively easily be assimilated by singer and listener alike. I hope it will receive the popularity it deserves
Stephen Cleobury, Director of Music, Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

On Goes the River: Three Songs of Childhood

“The young singers and instrumentalists from the Finchley Children’s Music Group thrived on the challenges offered by Ian Stephens’ piece, On Goes the River: Three Songs of Childhood. They enjoyed singing the well-chosen poetry, which was beautifully set, offering a full range of mood and colour to explore in rehearsal and in performance. The vocal writing was pitched at the appropriate level of difficulty for the choir (boy trebles and girls aged 9 – 18 yrs, SSAA), which was appreciated by the singers. It can be hard to musically engage every singer given the age range, but Ian Stephens managed to achieve this with his clever and sensitive writing, fully exploiting the sounds available to him. The punchy and humorous vocal lines in the 2nd movement were perfectly sandwiched between two more reflective and moving settings. Again, this variety of mood and style was something the choir thoroughly enjoyed. It made for a much variation during rehearsals, and a powerful performance during our concert programme. I had asked Ian Stephens to write a piece that also offered the opportunity for the gifted instrumentalists within the choir to shine. Again, he found the right level of difficulty for these players in On Goes the River. The players rehearsed the work chorally in addition to their separate ensemble rehearsals, so they knew the piece for both angles. We have on occasion performed other works with an ensemble taken from within the choir (e.g. Britten’s St Nicolas), and so it was fantastic to have a piece written for us in this way. The choir members were delighted to have a piece tailored for them in this way. We look forward to future performances of the work. It sits very easily around a wide range of choral repertoire and, as the instrumental lines are optional, it is possible to perform the short cycle as a choral work with piano accompaniment alone. Equally, I feel all three movements would successfully stand alone as part of a concert programme.”
Grace Rossiter , Musical Director, Finchley Children’s Music Group

Bassoon Sonata

Commissioned by Miranda Dodd for her husband Matthew's 50th birthday, this is a 15-minute piece which was premiered at Pigotts Music Camp by Matthew Dodd and Sam Laughton on 4th August 2018. In the preface Ian gives a full description of all the movements. 'Ode', the first movement, starts with a lyrical solo bassoon passage which is very satisfying to play and full of rhythmic interest. Indeed the whole piece is rhythmically challenging and the piano part equally so. As a fairly competent pianist I was able to have a good stab at it with a couple of students at the Royal Academy of Music where it went down well. After a fast energetic section, the 1st movement ends with another lyrical section. Given its title, the second movement 'Wild Dance' needs little additional explanation. After a short, lyrical middle section, it leads to some further very rhythmical material with continually changing time signatures. 'Song Without Words', marked tranquillo, is exactly that although the bassoon part is hardly static with lots of running semiquavers at times. The piano part is equally busy. 'Scat' is a fast and furious bebop movement, which is over all too quickly but great fun to play. This is undoubtably a highly accomplished composition, very well written for both bassoon and piano. For me, all the rhythmic ideas make it a fascinating work which is both challenging and satisfying. It contains everything required to show off the bassoon at its best — lyrical and technical —and uses the full range from bottom B flat to top E. As an audience piece it should be great to listen to, and could certainly be used for recital purposes including final recitals at music colleges. I can seriously recommend its addition to our repertoire, but definitely not for the faint hearted. I'm really looking forward to working on it with my students and hearing it In one or more of their recitals.
John Orford , Double Reed News , Summer 2019

Oboe Quintet

an Stephens is a composer of increasing repute, perhaps best known for his setting of We're Going on a Bear Hunt for narrator and orchestra, first performed at the 2013 BBC Proms. His Oboe Quintet is dedicated to the memory of Monica Nurnberg and David Dutch, two excellent oboists who contributed to the musical life of Merseyside as players and invested their enthusiasm in helping to develop the thriving amateur music scene in the region. Monica and David also served on the Committee of the Rodewald Concert Society, which promoted the world premiere of the work given by Jonathan Small and the Brodsky Quartet on 12 October 2014 in the glorious, neo-Classical Concert Room in St George's Hall, Liverpool. The Oboe Quintet, lasting approximately 17 minutes, is in three movements which are eclectic in style yet cohesive in content. A distinctive and decidedly plaintive falling minor third motif begins and ends the first movement and also finishes the work. This figure provides a clear structural marker for the architectonics of the piece, and is fundamental to the development of the outer movements as it is ornamented and extended in imaginative ways. The minor third motif references Aeolian modality and thereby evokes the English pastoral tradition that produced so much great oboe repertoire. This is especially the case in passages of mellifluous oboe writing that are accompanied by the quartet playing in rhythmic harmony. In places these accompanying intervals get locked into funky ostinati patterns or hocketing. The interlocking of minor thirds and their decoration with major and minor seconds also conjures moments of blues inflected melody or East European folk music. In the last movement this latter potential twice erupts into a skirling dance accompanied by percussive sounds made by the cellist on the body of the instrument. The middle movement is a passacaglia based on Bach's harmonisation of the aria Ich habe genug (I have enough) from Cantata BWV82, and there is a fleeting exposure of the strange, whole-tone opening phrase of the chorale melody Es ist genug (It is enough). This combination of Bach references provides a subtle and moving representation of life fulfilled. Ian Stephens’ Oboe Quintet is technically challenging, both for the oboist and the quartet players. The oboe part is often intricate and explores the full range of the instrument, reaching a top A-flat in the final movement (fortunately at a dynamic mark of 10. It requires good finger/tongue co-ordination but no extended techniques. Most importantly, passages of frequently changing time signatures mean that the piece demands an assured sense of rhythm from all players together with plenty of rehearsal time to secure these complicated sections. Ian Stephens has made a tender addition to the corpus of works for oboe and string quartet which should appeal to advanced players.
Helen Thomas , Double Reed News , Spring 2015

A Wailing on the Wind

In Ian Stephens’s A Wailing on the Wind … the result was nevertheless most engrossing. The story by Liz Weir involves the gentle interrogation of an old Irishwoman by her grandson, and develops into a touching story of a wartime romance between the grandmother and an American serviceman, with the banshee announcing the death of the latter. … The performance soon settled into a thrillingly unified experience. The expressive score by Ian Stephens mirrored the narrative expertly, with references to Irish dancing and American swing bands.
Paul Corfield Godfrey , Seen And Heard International , 24 April 2013

Syriana with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

“The success was also due in part to the sympathetic conducting of Ensemble 10/10’s Clark Rundell, and some terrific orchestral arrangements by Ian Stephens including a newly composed and lush string introduction to the lovely ‘Ommi’ (Mother), a song performed by its creator, oud player Nizar Al Issa.”
Catherine Jones , Liverpool Echo , 8 July 2011

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt

I feel that Ian’s setting of the much-loved story We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is the Holy Grail of narrated pieces for family concerts! It is engaging and interactive for the audience and stimulating and fulfilling for the orchestra and is immediately appealing on every level with its highly descriptive contemporary musical style including references to rock and world music. As a specialist programme deviser for these kind of events, I also think that it is just the right length to allow the rest of the programme to include complementary pieces with Bear Hunt providing the perfect theatrical focal point.
Alasdair Malloy (conductor, percussionist and deviser of children’s concerts)
It's fantastic!!! The rhythms and textures are perfect ... plus it's so funny. The audience are truly enjoying themselves from start to finish and interacting the whole time. Anything that gets kids (and adults for that matter) listening and appreciating the orchestra gets my vote.
Chris Jarvis (CBeebies presenter)
Your piece was a huge hit with audience and orchestra alike.
Tim Redmond (conductor, Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra)
The response to the piece was overwhelmingly positive – our audience for these concerts tends to be KS1 kids and so the level of participation went down incredibly well. Eavesdropping post-concert people were incredibly enthusiastic about the performance.
Hannah Reynolds (Planning Manager, The Sage Gateshead)
The children in our audience found We’re Going on a Bear Hunt really appealing and listened spellbound to this cleverly devised musical story. The work succeeds by setting the story’s repetitions to correspondingly attractive and repetitive musical interludes and giving the narrator and audience chances to join in with the story’s repetitions with theatrical devices and actions. By the end of the work, we have all been on a bear hunt, felt the anticipation and pretended we’re not scared, been under it, over it, through it and round it, seen the bear, and ... we can all sing the music! The piece kept the RLPO audience riveted with Dave Benson Phillips’ wonderfully over-the-top narration, movements and actions. Ian Stephens’ music is brilliantly conceived, keeps the orchestral players busy and interested, and sustains the storyline and presenter’s antics with good tunes. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this work to other orchestras – it’s a gift for younger children and a great fun addition to children’s concerts which will hold even the most fidgety audience spellbound! It should receive tonnes of performances and I’m personally looking forward to doing it again soon.
Nicholas Cox (ex-principal clarinet, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra)
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is brilliantly conceived: Stephens has thought about every aspect of the story and brought it to life with his instinctive feel for orchestration. With its catchy tunes and intricate scoring, Bear Hunt is as fun to play as it is to listen to, and has proven a huge success with audiences.
Josephine Frieze (percussion, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra)
This summer I was lucky enough to take part in a performance of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Ian Stephens. This is a magical piece, full of delights for nursery and primary age children, with the music perfectly capturing the upbeat mood of the book.
Miranda Dodd (Key Stage 1 Learning Leader and Year 2 Teacher, St Andrew’s C of E Primary School‎, Fontmell Magna, Dorset; amateur violinist)
The children loved listening to We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and we followed with the book. All the children were really engaged with the story and it was a brilliant way of introducing repeated phrases in stories and drama-supporting learning. They have learnt skills we can adapt for other stories (e.g. showing emotion in facial expressions) which they will be using throughout this year and KS1.
Lucy James (Reception Teacher, St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, Rotherhithe)
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is absolutely superb! Both children and adults within schools will love this interactive and musical storytelling device. The children are engaged and enthused by the music and ask to listen to it over and over again. Every foundation stage and KS1 teacher will want this. Even my Year Fives were completely engrossed.
Richard Preston (Year 5 Teacher, St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, Rotherhithe)
"It was brilliant because I liked it when the bear chased after us. I like bears!” “I liked it in the mud because it was squelching.” “It was great. I was scared because they left the door open. I thought the bear was going to catch up with them!”
Reception students (St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, Rotherhithe)
We came as a family to the Teddy Bear’s Picnic concert at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall last year and had a fabulous time. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt itself was really atmospheric and involving for the children, who were caught up in the drama of it all. It was a great way to introduce children to live performance and classical music.
Nina Bueno del Carpio (parent of children aged 4 & 6)