ROGER B. WILLIAMS: Choral Director and Organist

THÉOPHILE KROSI-DOUTÉ: Assistant Choral Director

Thursday evening’s musical tribute to Ronald Stevenson (1928 – 2015) was fascinating, warm-hearted but also perplexing, in the sheer stylistic variety of Stevenson’s music, idiosyncratic surely – very much like the man himself. Stevenson is usually regarded as a Scottish composer but he was born in Blackburn, Lancashire and did not move to Scotland until the mid 1950’s. He studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, now incorporated into the Royal Northern College of Music. He was notable as a composer, pianist, teacher and general man of music. He was noted for his warmth and friendship towards many composers and performers including Shostakovich, Percy Grainger and many others. He also dressed and looked exactly as you would imagine a real composer should, quite unlike Richard Strauss for instance who looked alarmingly like a bank manager.

Both Joseph Long and Roger Williams who took part in Thursday’s tribute knew him well and were his friends. Joseph in particular developed a close musical relationship with Ronald Stevenson based not just on mutual interest in all aspects of pianism but on composition too.


The first piece in Thursday’s amazing concert was the second piano work that Joseph Long ever played for Stevenson. This was Chopin’s Ballade no. 4. We were also to hear the very first piece that Joseph ever played for Stevenson, Beltane Bonfire.

Joseph chose to open the concert with the Chopin Ballade because he was to follow it with Stevenson’s Fugue on a Fragment of Chopin based on the Fourth Ballade and composed at the age of just 21. An extensive passage from the Ballade is quoted in the central section of Stevenson’s Fugue.

The Chapel piano was sounding at its best as Joseph played Chopin’s Ballade. Clean, clear gentle music was contrasted with passages of considerable drama and excitement. Joseph led us on a marvellous virtuoso journey through Chopin’s music. It was, I thought, a carefully considered and deeply felt performance.

Stevenson’s Fugue followed on very nicely indeed. Having the two pieces together worked exceptionally well. It seemed that Chopin and Stevenson were all intertwined in Joseph’s performance and the shadow of J. S. Bach hung there too. Stevenson’s musical journey in this piece was every bit as intriguing as Chopin’s had been. The final moments of the music sizzled with pure pianistic excitement. Listening to this piece you realised that its composer had to have been a pianist of some distinction just as Chopin had been.

Beltane Bonfire is an astonishing piece. Again its pianistic polish and understanding shone through. Although Stevenson said that the work is evocative rather than descriptive there were many moments when the idea of flames and burning came through in Joseph’s very exciting playing. The plucking of the strings inside the piano near the end gave the theme a magical quality before another exciting rush of piano playing brought the piece to its conclusion.

Joseph told us that he had received formal lessons in composition from Ronald Stevenson. Joseph’s own composition entitled Arietta was composed during that period. The version which we heard today was for flute and piano with Margaret Preston playing the flute. It was an attractively fluent work with very fine contrapuntal writing reminiscent of what we had heard in the earlier fugue although lighter and perhaps a little whimsical with fabulous playing from both artistes. Margaret and Joseph make a particularly fine team. Both were at the top of their game on Thursday.

Stevenson’s Recitative and Air on DSCH demonstrated the composer’s amazing imaginative power since the entire flute part is built on the notes D, E flat, C and B and the theme came out in the piano as well – a fine example of how so much can be drawn from a simple thematic fragment. Yes, here less was definitely more. I was unsure where this music lies on the line of tonal versus atonal – with Stevenson you get something that is very much his own.

The last of the pieces for flute and piano was Joseph’s own setting of a song by Stevenson. The melody had a certain Scottish flavour to it and the “hook” a term used in describing a musical effect  that makes a pop song irresistible was the lovely low note to which the melody jumped in Margaret’s flute part.

The following two works were examples of Stevenson’s choral writing. The Choir of St Machar Cathedral directed by Dr Roger Williams took the stage for these pieces and then the two works by Sir James Macmillan which followed to complete the performance. Stevenson was a deeply convinced pacifist who even went to prison for two years rather than do National Service. The first of his motets, Thou shalt not kill, put that message powerfully across, repeating the words over and over. Blessed are the peacemakers was more open with attractive harmonies and counterpoint. It was sung with conviction by the choir.

The first of the two motets by Macmillan, Think of how God loves you, was gentle and attractive and like the first of Stevenson’s motets although in a different way, it got its message across really clearly.

For the second motet, Roger Williams ascended to the gallery to play the organ while the task of choral conducting was taken over by composition graduate student Théophile Krosi-Douté. This was an entrancing piece bursting with colour and wonderfully imaginative shaping from both the choir and the organ. As the programme note stated, the organ “blossoms in a fine, optimistic coda”. Yes indeed – wonderful!

This was a fascinating, performance, bursting with the sort of variety which was one of the hallmarks of Stevenson’s music. By the end I felt all the excellent performers really had taken us by the hand and introduced us personally to Ronald Stevenson.