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IN CONCERT: Inspired by bombs dropping

SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS
TOM JACOBS, NEWS-PRESS STAFF
May 18, 2007

The horrors of war have inspired many works of art, from “Guernica” to “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Today at the Music Academy of the West, Camerata Pacifica will perform an addition to that impressive list: Ian Wilson’s “Messenger” Concerto.

The Irish composer wrote the work in 1999, during the conflict for control of the former Yugoslavian province of Kosovo. When Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic sent in troops to secure the disputed area, NATO forces — including those of the United States — responded by bombing the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

While most of us watched this unfold on CNN, Wilson experienced it firsthand. His wife is from Belgrade, and the couple was living in the city when the bombs started falling in March 1999.

“We had a four-month-old baby at the time,” he said in a telephone conversation from his home in the rural west of Ireland. “The worst we experienced was the night we were leaving.

“We managed to get the last two seats on a minibus that was going to Hungary. As we were piling our bags onto the minibus, there were rockets exploding on the near horizon. Everybody was running past us to the bomb shelter.”

At the time of their escape, Wilson was well into writing the concerto, which was commissioned by RTE (the Irish national broadcasting agency) for violinist Catherine Leonard. He and his wife were going back and forth between Belfast and Belgrade during those months, and while he worked on the piece in both cities, its emotional core reflects his harrowing experiences in Serbia.

“I was quite angry about the situation, and I think that does come through in the music,” he said. “So you get a very tense and fraught first movement. The second movement is a little lullaby, because we just had a child.

“The third and fourth movements were written after we came back to Ireland. The third movement is very energetic, but there’s a slightly positive edge to it. There are some open harmonies.”

Why not end the work there? “It somehow felt unfinished,” Wilson explained. “I hadn’t really said everything I wanted to say. So I wrote a fourth movement, which brings everything down to bare bones. It is basically a little requiem.”

The work premiered in January 2001 in Dublin, performed by Leonard and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. The violinist gave a copy of the subsequent recording to Camerata Pacifica artistic director Adrian Spence, who was intrigued enough to meet the composer and ask him to write music for the Santa Barbara-based chamber music ensemble.

When Spence suggested he create a scaled-down version of the “Messenger” Concerto, “I was taken aback slightly,” Wilson said. “It was originally conceived as a piece for full orchestra with no percussion. Adrian asked if I could write a new version for nine or 10 players.”

After some negotiation, they agreed on a 13-piece ensemble to accompany Leonard, who will reprise the solo part.

“I think the colors are probably a bit bolder (in this new version),” Wilson said. “The violin part is exactly the same.

“This version is shorter than the original, which came in at 37 minutes. This will come in at just over half an hour. Rather than make cuts, we have sped up certain sections — particularly the second movement. In the original, I wanted something that unfolded very gradually. But on this scale, I think it needs to move a little faster.”

The new version will have its world premiere at 1 and 8 p.m. today in the Music Academy of the West’s Abravanel Hall. (Camerata Pacifica moved this season-ending concert from Lehmann Hall to the nearby larger facility, meaning single tickets will be on sale at the door.)

The ensemble will perform the work in Ventura, Los Angeles and at the Huntington Library in the next week. Then, in April and May 2008, it will be the centerpiece of Camerata’s first-ever tour of the East Coast and British Isles. Thanks to financial support from Tourism Ireland, the group will perform the concerto in New York City, Washington D.C., London, Dublin, Derry and Belfast.

Wilson was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The son of “a very good soprano,” he started violin lessons at age 8, and founded a rock band — for which he wrote all the songs — at 17.

The 42-year-old composer earned a series of music degrees, including a Ph.D., at the University of Ulster. He attributes his composition career to “a real absence of desire to do anything else.”

The “Messenger” Concerto is the third work he has written for Leonard, one of his favorite instrumentalists. “She plays with abandon, but there’s still control there,” he said. “She really gives it 100 percent every time.

“Musicians like that aren’t so common in my experience. When you find someone (with those qualities) who enjoys playing your music, you keep going back to them.”