Two musicians who helped to shape my composing life

Two conductors, composers, and facilitators died in recent weeks – one who was well known, the other much less so, but both were responsible for performing and promoting music by many composers, including myself.

Stephen Wilkinson  died on August 10th 2021, aged 102. He was formerly the conductor of the BBC Northern Singers, composer, and Radio 3 producer, and in the distant past I had sent him some of my choral pieces. Although I heard nothing at the time, I was very excited some years later to get a beautifully calligraphed letter from him to say that he would like to programme my Madrigal Book with the William Byrd Singers, an excellent amateur chamber choir.  We travelled to Manchester for the concert, met Stephen, then in his 60s, and his wife Delyth, a soprano in the choir, and it was an excellent performance. He then subsequently did this piece with the BBC Northern Singers, as well as my Three Poems of W.B.Yeats  – and then, to celebrate his 70th birthday, the BBC commissioned seven composers, Elizabeth Machonchy, Michael Ball, Stephen Dodgson, John McCabe, John Joubert, David Gow, and myself. My piece was The Spacious Firmament  – a poem that Stephen was fond of – and all of these were subsequently broadcast on Radio 3.
In 1991 the BBC Northern Singers were ‘privatised’ and then disbanded, and Stephen moved on to a life involving more composing and instrumental conducting. I was just one of many composers to benefit from Stephen’s fine musicianship and flair for concert-building, and we exchanged musical Christmas cards for the rest of his life.

By contrast, Alan G. Parsons, who died on September 1st 2021 aged 90, was hardly known outside the confines of East Anglia. He was a composer of skill who had studied with Anthony Milner and David Lumsdaine and although some found his atonal musical style somewhat gritty, it was always crafted with care and understanding, and deeply considered. Alongside his composition, his teaching, and his involvement with the church, he was an avid concert promoter, and a wizard at obtaining sponshorship, and for this a wide range of composers in East Anglia have to thank him. A founding member of Mercia Music, and then Colchester New Music, he was responsible for enticing some first-rate performers and ensembles to Colchester, such as The Composers Ensemble, Ixion (Michael Finnissy) Gemini (Ian Mitchell), Lindsay Gowers, Huw Watkins and Christian Forshaw. There they would perform music by local composers in ‘Composers’ Days’ which also involved student composition workshops and various other events. These annual concerts gave me the opportunity to flex my compositional muscles with ensemble pieces like FlingFlourishLarge White Rock,  and several more. Alan Parsons was a kind and thoughtful man, and he will be very much missed.

2 thoughts on “Two musicians who helped to shape my composing life”

  1. Dear Allan,
    I don’t know if you might remember me from Colchester Institute. I always remember the student composers concerts which I performed in many times with great enjoyment. (1979-1983)
    This Spring a small choir I am working with, Shetland Community Choir, is performing your piece ‘Peace in the World’. I got a copy of your ‘Images of Peace’ quite a while ago but chose to have the choir sing this piece just at the beginning of this year, not in any way foreseeing the current tragic situation in Ukraine. It is however proving very timely. Thank you and would love to have a comment from you. Warm regards Robert

    1. Dear Robert,
      Thank you for making contact, and I do remember you! I’m very pleased you are doing ‘Peace in the World’ which is certainly appropriate at this time. Do hope it goes well, and spreads a message of love and understanding. If you are interested, there is a performance of just this movement on YouTube accompanied by photographs of Colchester’s Hilly Fields!

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