Stephen McNeff – Composer

Monday 29 August 2022

“ Beyond the Garden…an extraordinary experience.”Opera +


Stephen McNeff studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music and did post-graduate work at the University of Exeter. He began his career working in theatres throughout Britain and he became Associate Director at the University of Manchester’s Contact Theatre. He went to the Banff Centre in Canada as composer in residence writing a number of music theatre works before becoming Artistic Director of Comus Music Theatre in Toronto. There he won a Mavor Moore Award for his opera The Secret Garden. On his return to Britain he won a Scotsman award at the Edinburgh Festival for his opera Aesop, written with long-time collaborator, the Cornish poet Charles Causley.

His relationship with the Canadian Brass resulted in a Brass Quintet and he arranged numerous albums – including those with the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic Brass. As his reputation grew in England his work was performed in major concert hall like the newly opened Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, but it was his quirky take on T S Eliot’s The Wasteland – presented operatically as a film noir thriller – that grabbed the attention of the London critics at the 1994 Covent Garden Festival.

He went on to write a number of other music theatre works including Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe, Slump (based on the cartoon strip by novelist Will Self) and, with the award winning poet Alice Oswald, Passions. In 2004 his opera Clockwork (based on the book by Philip Pullman) was a major success at the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The Royal Opera House commissioned him to write Gentle Giant, a work which has been revived twice and is in the ROH repertoire. In 2007 he won the British Composer Award for his opera, Tarka the Otter.

Although specialising in opera and music for the theatre and voice he has written important instrumental pieces, including a Cello Sonata, a Piano Quintet and a large range of works for wind ensembles of various kinds. Ghosts, his first major success in this genre, has been played extensively in Europe, Japan and the USA and been recorded twice. The Royal Northern College of Music recorded a portrait album of his wind music, Image in Stone, available on the Campion label and other recordings of wind music recordings feature the University of Indiana on the Klavier label.

A long relationship with the Unicorn Theatre produced many new scores, notably his music for a series of plays based on Beatrix Potter’s children’s stories. These have been very successfully made into the Beatrix Potter Suites recorded on Chandos by the BBC Concert Orchestra with Imelda Staunton.

In 2005 he became Composer in Residence with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra where principal conductor Marin Alsop gave premieres of three new symphonic works, Heiligenstadt, Secret Destinations and Sinfonia. Other works for the BSO included Weathers for chorus and orchestra, and Echoes and Reflections, premiered by Yan Pascal Tortelier. He also completed works for the BSO’s new music ensemble, notably LUX and Counting 1 and 2 (premiered in an exchange with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Ensemble 10/10). The Chalk Legends, an opera oratorio with over 200 performers, was commissioned by the BSO for London 2012.

Other orchestral commissions include Near Avalon for the Ulster Orchestra and a Double Percussion Concerto for the ODuo and BBC Symphony Orchestra (both Radio 3 commissions). His new orchestration of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was performed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre and was unanimously praised by the London critics as a landmark development in approaches to the opera. It was nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award. For Rambert Dance he adapted Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges into Seven for a Secret and in 2012 there was a transatlantic revival of a newly revised version of The Secret Garden at Trinity Laban Conservatoire and the Banff Festival of the Arts.2013 saw the release of two very warmly received new CDs. Madrigali Dell’Estate features mezzo soprano, Clare McCaldin, singing Italian themed works, while the release on Dutton Epoch is of four major works from his time as composer in residence with the BSO.

His Concerto for Flute and Wind Orchestra was premiered by the Lambeth Wind Orchestra in April 2014 and revived five performances in the first year with more scheduled. The Concerto for Oboe and Strings was first heard at the Presteigne Festival (‘filigree swerves of texture redolent of an almost baroque, Italianate sensibility’, according to Tempo Magazine) while his new orchestration of Carmen for Mid Wales Opera was greeted with great enthusiasm. Steph Power in Wales Arts review said, “McNeff’s Carmen is recognisably Bizet (via Saint-Saëns and Ravel), but breathes quite another smoky atmosphere: Kurt Weill’s burlesque, ironic cabaret. With guitar and splash cymbal, saxophone and muted trumpet, McNeff opens the door to a rich and intriguing Carmen as direct social critique”.

Recent new works include The Darkling Serenade for the British Clarinet Ensemble, premiered in Madrid last year (published by Maecenas). His latest choral work A Half Darkness will be premiered by Chamber Choir Ireland at the Wexford International Choral Festival and then tour Ireland, while another new choral work, Everyone Sang will be premiered in Dorchester and in Germany in the autumn. Meanwhile his new opera, Banished will be first performed by Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in June and a new song cycle for Mark Padmore and Morgan Szymanski (a Radio 3 commission) will be heard as part of a BBC lunchtime concert from the Wigmore Hall in September. Vivienne, McNeff’s five-star rated one women song-cycle opera for Clare McCaldin, is now released on the CD Notes from the Asylum on Champs Hill Records.