Friday, September 19, 2014

CCC 115 - Julian Wagstaff

This week's entry in the Consonant Classical Challenge is Scottish composer Julian Wagstaff. Wagstaff's had a varied career before turning to music full-time in the late 1990's. His work and study in German, political history, and science have all provided inspiration for his works. And his musical influences are equally eclectic, coming not only from classical tradition, but also rock and musical theater.

All of which give Wagstaff a unique compositional voice -- and one that's readily accessible.

"John Paul Jones" is a musical, and it's the work that brought Julian Wagstaff to the attention of the classical world. Musicals are all about melody, and Wagstaff delivers. The melodies in "John Paul Jones" are solidly constructed, and it's clear that Wagstaff is more concerned with expressing the emotions of the characters and furthering the story than providing excuses for singers to belt out the show-stopping tunes.

"Breathe Freely" is a chamber opera with an interesting origin. It was commissioned by the University of Edinburgh School of Chemistry, and tells the story of Polish chemist Stanislaw Hempel. Wagstaff's scientific background serves him well. The work itself is highly chromatic, but not atonal, And as this excerpt video shows, there are even some beautiful melodies that have a hint of musical theater about them.

I suspect that Wagstaff's background as a German translator and his interest in political history may have had something to do with his string orchestra work, "Treptow." It was inspired by the Soviet war memorial in Treptow Park (in the former East Germany), and to my ears, sounds somewhat akin to the chamber works of Shostakovich.

The Symphony for Chamber Orchestra shows Wagstaff's mastery of the orchestral form. In this excerpt, one can hear that Wagstaff isn't just a melodist -- he can take his themes apart and reassemble them in new and interesting ways that still further the aim of the composition.

Listen to an excerpt of the Chamber Symphony on Soundcloud.

Julian Wagstaff is a young composer, and one who's quite comfortable in many musical genres. And that's what makes his music work so well. Younger audiences are also comfortable listening to many musical genres. Performing organizations who are looking to develop new audiences might do well to consider Wagstaff's music. And best of all, it shouldn't alienate older audiences either. At least I was left wanting to hear more.

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