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CONCERTO for PIANO and WIND INSTRUMENTS by Kevin Volans (South Africa, 1949)

[#193] April 03, 2023

South Africa | 1995 | Piano and Wind Ensemble | Grade 6 | 15'-20' | Concerto

South African composer Kevin Volans

Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments by South African composer Kevin Volans is our Composition of the Week.

Written in 1995, the concerto was premiered during the same year, on October 18, in De Doelen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, with Peter Donohoe as soloist, and Daniel Harding conducting.

The concerto has a duration of 20 minutes, it is dedicated to Barbara Bailey, and it is edited by Chester Music. It was commissioned by the BBC Proms, the premiere included a television dance film with Silvie Guillem, with choreography by Jonathan Burrows. The concerto presents undeniable traits of Stravinsky, even subtly quoting sonorities from his symphony for wind instruments.

“…Volans can create a sound that is arrestingly beautiful and sustain interest in the way it is developed for the whole of the piece … a rare combination of directness and sophistication.” Martyn Harry – Gramophone, January 1998 (Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments CD)

Kevin Volans was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and studied at the University of the Witwatersrand and later with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel in Cologne, Germany, in the 1970s. Volans was also interested in the indigenous music of his homeland and began a series of pieces which attempted to combine aspects of African and contemporary European music. Although Volans later moved away from any direct engagement with African music, certain residual elements such as interlocking rhythms, repetition and open forms are still detectable in his music since the early 1990s which takes a new direction more redolent of certain schools of abstract art.

While in Cologne, Volans became increasingly dissatisfied with the new-music movement in the city, which he perceived to be dogmatic and creatively restricting. Alongside other composers such as Walter Zimmermann, Gerald Barry, and Michael von Biel, Volans began to question the hegemony of the prevailing new-music style that was based on an extension of the serial techniques of the previous generation. This group of composers, loosely referred to as the Cologne School, marked the start of the Neue Einfachheit (New Simplicity) movement which began with a concert series organised by Zimmermann in January 1977.Composers linked with the New Simplicity generally sought a more transparent and direct style, an openness to aspects of tonality and a freedom to use pre-existing material quite in contrast to the intense abstraction of the post-war avantgarde.

He moved to Ireland in 1986 and has been an Irish citizen since 1994. He lives in County Cork. After a productive collaboration with the Kronos quartet in the 1980s his work, principally in the field of chamber and orchestral music, has been regularly performed worldwide. The Kronos discs, White Man Sleeps and Pieces of Africa broke all records for string quartet disc sales. In 1997 the BBC Music Magazine listed him as one of the 50 most important living composers and he was described by the Village Voice (New York) as “one of the most original and unpredictable voices on the planet”.

In 1999 the South Bank in London hosted a 50th birthday celebration of his work and for his 60th the Wigmore Hall in London organised a “Kevin Volans Day” of concerts. After this latter event he was given the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for the best chamber work performed in Britain in 2009. He has been the featured composer in several European festivals of contemporary music, and he was the featured composer in Prague in November 2017 with 9 world premieres.

In 2019 birthday concerts of his work were held in London (Wigmore Hall), Johannesburg, and Rome. He has taught many of Ireland’s distinguished young composers: Deirdre. Gribben, Elaine Agnew, Deirdre MacKay, Jennifer Walshe, Andrew Hamilton, Jonathan Nangle, Juergen Simpson, Simon O’Connor, and several others, as well as several international, award-winning composers outside Ireland.

Kevin Volans has worked with quartets: Kronos, Smith Quartet, Duke Quartet, Arditti Quartet, pianists: Barry Douglas, Marc-André Hamelin, Peter Donohoe, Jill Richards, conductors: Michael Tilson Thomas, Marek Janowski, Alan Buribayev, Yan Pascal Tortelier, orchestras: the San Francisco Symphony, BBC Symphony, Bayerische Rundfunk Symphonieorchester, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, BBC Singers, percussionists: Robyn Schulkowsky, Jonny Axelsson, SISU and many others, as well as dance companies like Siobhan Davies, Shobana Jeyasingh, White Oak, Jonathan Burrows and artists: William Kentridge, Juergen Partenheimer, Jose-Manuel Ballester. Principal performances in the last years include the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, the Berliner Musikfest,Vienna State Opera, the Salzburger Festspiele, the Lincoln Center NY, Dokumenta Kassel, the Pompidou Centre Paris, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Kunstmuseum Bonn, the Chicago Institute of Fine Arts, the Edinburgh Festival, the Barbican, South Bank, Wigmore Hall, London and several times in the BBC Proms.


Other works for winds by Kevin Volans include:

  • Walking Song (1984)

  • This is How it is (extract from stage work “The Man with Footsoles of Wind”, 1995)

  • Leaping Dance (3rd version, 1995)

  • L’Isle Joyeuse (Debussy, arr: Volans, 1996)

  • 7 flutes (2014)

  • 7 bass winds (2015)

  • 7 clarinets and one flute (2017)

More on Kevin Volans


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