Ian was born in Sidmouth, Devon, in 1974. He was a keen participant in school choirs and orchestras (as a cellist), and was a longstanding member of Devon Youth Choir and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. Particularly inspiring were cello lessons with Ruth Lass and music lessons at Exeter School with Simon Foxall and Julian Sutton. Ian began composing while in his early teens, and some early pieces were performed at school. He studied Music at Bristol University (BA, 1st class, 1995; MA in Musicology, 1997), with composition lessons from Adrian Beaumont. Ian was an editor on the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians between 1998 and 2000; he taught Music part-time at the University of Liverpool and at Liverpool Hope University between 2000 and 2002.
His music has been performed by orchestras including the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Hallé, Bournemouth Symphony, RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, Orchestra of Scottish Opera, London Mozart Players and Malaysian Philharmonic; choirs including the BBC Singers, Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Salisbury Cathedral Choir, National Youth Choir of Great Britain, Exmoor Singers of London, Bristol Bach Choir, Liverpool Welsh Choral, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, Malmesbury Abbey Choir, Elysian Singers, London Oriana Choir and Manchester Chamber Choir; and Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. Smaller ensembles to have performed his music include Ensemble 10/10 (Shir Ahava, Through the Affrighted Air and Thea Dances), the Acordia Ensemble (Rondo for Three), Mardi Brass (Ultramarine), the Mavron Quartet (A Wailing on the Wind and Dances Overheard), the Brodsky Quartet (Oboe Quintet), the Janus Ensemble (Thea Dances), the Blaze Ensemble (Thea Dances) and the Fitzwilliam String Quartet (Springhead Echoes and Clarinet Quintet).
Ian combines life as a freelance composer with various other musical and music-educational commitments. As a double bassist he is part of the improvisation group White Lines (with clarinettist Mandy Burvill and cellist Alexander Holladay), and he regularly plays the cello in orchestral and chamber music; he also sings bass in Manchester Chamber Choir.
Awards and Professional Recognition
● Recipient of the New Composition Award at the 1992 National Festival of Music for Youth for The White Birds (SATB)
● Selected to be on the 1994 Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) shortlist for Epitaph on a Tyrant (SSAATTBB)
● One of three composers to be shortlisted for the Making Music category of the 2004 British Composer Awards for Crosby Symphony Overture
● Nominated for a 2017 Paul Hamlyn Award for Composers
● Associate Member of the Performing Rights Society (2017)
on Oboe Quintet
“Ian Stephens is a composer of increasing repute … His Oboe Quintet is dedicated to the memory of Monica Nurnberg and David Dutch, two excellent oboists who contributed to the musical life of Merseyside as players and invested their enthusiasm in helping to develop the thriving amateur music scene in the region. Monica and David also served on the Committee of the Rodewald Concert Society, which promoted the world premiere of the work given by Jonathan Small and the Brodsky Quartet on 12 October 2014 in the glorious, neo-Classical Concert Room in St George’s Hall, Liverpool.
The Oboe Quintet, lasting approximately 17 minutes, is in three movements which are eclectic in style yet cohesive in content. A distinctive and decidedly plaintive falling minor third motif begins and ends the first movement and also finishes the work. This figure provides a clear structural marker for the architectonics of the piece, and is fundamental to the development of the outer movements as it is ornamented and extended in imaginative ways. The minor third motif references Aeolian modality and thereby evokes the English pastoral tradition that produced so much great oboe repertoire. This is especially the case in passages of mellifluous oboe writing that are accompanied by the quartet playing in rhythmic harmony. In places these accompanying intervals get locked into funky ostinati patterns or hocketing. The interlocking of minor thirds and their decoration with major and minor seconds also conjures moments of blues inflected melody or East European folk music. In the last movement this latter potential twice erupts into a skirling dance accompanied by percussive sounds made by the cellist on the body of the instrument.
The middle movement is a passacaglia based on Bach’s harmonisation of the aria Ich habe genug (I have enough) from Cantata BWV82, and there is a fleeting exposure of the strange, whole-tone opening phrase of the chorale melody Es ist genug (It is enough). This combination of Bach references provides a subtle and moving representation of life fulfilled.
Ian Stephens’ Oboe Quintet is technically challenging, both for the oboist and the quartet players. The oboe part is often intricate and explores the full range of the instrument, reaching a top A-flat in the final movement (fortunately at a dynamic mark of ff. It requires good finger/tongue co-ordination but no extended techniques. Most importantly, passages of frequently changing time signatures mean that the piece demands an assured sense of rhythm from all players together with plenty of rehearsal time to secure these complicated sections.
Ian Stephens has made a tender addition to the corpus of works for oboe and string quartet which should appeal to advanced players. The performing materials are available from Composers’ Edition.”
(Helen Thomas, Double Reed News, Spring 2015)
on The Big Proms Bear Hunt
“A family concert based on We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and featuring much-loved household names Michael Rosen and Tony Ross drew in a willing and high-spirited audience for this afternoon Prom, many with their own teddy bears in tow. … With the structure established and the audience willingly chanting along with the refrain, the Bear Hunt story was extended to take in a concert’s worth of adventures, each new place or discovery another obstacle along the way in the hunt. Along with the traditional mud, river, and dark cave, then, we encountered a great gate (Mussorgsky’s), a mountain king (Grieg’s) and the bear, eventually, was snoozing to a Britten Nocturne. This was an adventure where Pirates of the Caribbean rubbed shoulders with Tchaikovsky’s Russian dancers, and the pieces were well chosen, with plenty of contrast and no piece too long. … The Liverpool Philharmonic Children’s Choirs led the participatory sections, and shone in Ian Stephens’ The Forest, to original words by Rosen. … As the bear hunters beat a hasty retreat near the end of the concert, we were treated to a medley with snippets of each preceding piece, masterfully put together, during which each picture was shown again in reverse order.”
(Amanda Dean, www.bachtrack.com)
“Rosen himself led the way from a lectern at the front of the stage, reading those words that have become familiar to millions of parents and children – ‘We’re going on a bear hunt; we’re going to catch a big one; we’re not scared…’ – but with suitable moments of adaptation to fit this musical occasion. Providing that music was the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, its colourfully clad ranks swelled for the day by clearly thrilled members of the West Everton Children’s Orchestra – an ensemble that is the result of the wonderful In Harmony Liverpool organisation. Behind the orchestra stood the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Children’s Choir – in fine vocal fettle and equipped with a full complement of accompanying actions. … At its best, this was a brilliantly conceived and performed Prom, rounded off by a masterful medley of all the works we’d heard throughout the previous hour, as the bear-hunting family ran back home through the various obstacles it had met on its way (you’ll have to read the book…).”
(Jeremy Pound, www.classical-music.com)
“The adventure, as found in Rosen’s book, was expanded so that we heard not only the traditional wavy grass (swishy swishy!), swampy mud (squelch squelch!) and swirling whirling snowstorm (hoooo woooo!) – set to a vividly pictorial score by Ian Stephens – but also pirates, mermaids, a great gate and a king found deep under a mountain, to mention but a few. Ian Stephens’s score answered a commission by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2009, and this version, written for a larger orchestra with two extra ensembles, remains a favourite amongst the Phil’s audiences.”
(Chris Caspell, www.classicalsource.com)
on A Wailing on the Wind
“In Ian Stephens’s A Wailing on the Wind … the result was nevertheless most engrossing. The story by Liz Weir involves the gentle interrogation of an old Irishwoman by her grandson, and develops into a touching story of a wartime romance between the grandmother and an American serviceman, with the banshee announcing the death of the latter. … The performance soon settled into a thrillingly unified experience. The expressive score by Ian Stephens mirrored the narrative expertly, with references to Irish dancing and American swing bands.”
(Paul Corfield Godfrey, Seen And Heard International, 24 April 2013)
on Ian’s arrangements for Syriana
“The success was also due in part to the sympathetic conducting of Ensemble 10/10’s Clark Rundell, and some terrific orchestral arrangements by Ian Stephens including a newly composed and lush string introduction to the lovely ‘Ommi’ (Mother), a song performed by its creator, oud player Nizar Al Issa.”
(Catherine Jones, Liverpool Echo, 8 July 2011)
Music for Young People
Between 2002 and 2006 he wrote 15 short pieces for the Family Concerts at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, performed by the RLPO and presented by Alasdair Malloy. Dance for Spring was composed for the strings of Crosby Music Centre, and has been performed extensively.
In October 2011 Ian wrote a youth opera called The Darkness And The Light: Sparrow Hall – The Opera. It was performed at the Performance Space in The Bluecoat, School Lane, Liverpool, at 7pm on Friday 28 October 2011. It was a project run by the Community Outreach Department of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, in partnership with the Action For Achievement youth club on the Sparrow Hall Estate in Fazakerley, Liverpool. The ideas and words came from the young people themselves (13 of them, aged between about 10 and 15), with the final text put together by Yvonne Rea and Katie Clinton from AFA. It is a journey from darkness to light, telling of the stark choices facing the young people on their estate, and explores the transformation of their lives that came about through the opening of the youth club. The young people were joined by an excellent ensemble of six musicians from the RNCM (Sarah Thornett on violin, Marta Tobar on cello, Alastair Penman on clarinet/alto sax, Jack Royle on trombone, Syuzanna Kaso on piano and Michael Clarke on drums), as well as two professional singers, Sarah Gilford (soprano), and Mark Burns (baritone), who doubled as director.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – a 20-minute entertainment for children, for narrator and orchestra – was commissioned by the RLPO in 2009 – Ian wrote the music; the words, based on the traditional rhyme, were written by Dave Benson-Phillips and Emma Mills. It has been performed more than 30 times since its first performance in November 2009 in Liverpool, by orchestras including the Halle Orchestra, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, Cambridge Philharmonic, Orchestra of St Paul’s, British Sinfonietta and Kensington Chamber Orchestra, and with narrators including Kathy Clugston (BBC Radio 4) and Chris Jarvis (CBeebies).
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt was rescored and expanded to provide the framework for the entirety of Prom 66 at the Royal Albert Hall, a Family Matinee Prom concert on 1 September 2013 titled ‘The Big Proms Bear Hunt’. As well as the interludes he originally wrote music for – Grass, Mud, River, Snowstorm, the piece was expanded to include some much-loved pieces of music by Mussorgsky, Grieg, Stravinsky and others. The narrator was Michael Rosen. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Matthew Coorey, and they were joined by the Liverpool Philharmonic Children’s Choir. Also playing was the West Everton Children’s Orchestra, the performing ensemble of the In Harmony project in Liverpool. Tony Ross, whose illustrations are known to countless children through Horrid Henry and The Little Princess, did live illustrations, projected onto a big screen, throughout the concert.
Much of 2016 was devoted to Super Slow Way: A Rhapsody to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, a collaboration with the wonderful poet Ian McMillan, for the 200th anniversary of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, commissioned by the Canal and River Trust. I wrote for the combined forces of soprano Amanda Roocroft, cellist Jonathan Aasgaard, tabla player Kuljit Bhamra, Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, Blackburn People’s Choir, Children’s Voices of Blackburn and the Super Slow Way Chamber Choir. It was performed at King George’s Hall, Blackburn, on Sunday 16 October 2016. A short film about the Rhapsody can be seen here.
His fanfare The World in One City, celebrating Liverpool’s selection as Capital of Culture 2008, was composed for brass septet on the day that the result was announced. Ian subsequently expanded it and rescored it for orchestra and organ; in this guise it has been performed by the RLPO in Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and at the Royal Albert Hall, and was performed by the RLPO as part of its 2008 celebrations.
Ian is a skilled and highly effective arranger in both directions – from small forces to large (e.g. piano to orchestra) and the other way round (e.g. orchestra to string quartet). His arrangements include orchestrations of seven Arabic songs for Amal Murkus (2005); an arrangement for violin and orchestra of Schubert’s Serenade, recorded by Nicola Benedetti and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (released in 2006); orchestrations of six songs for The Christians (2006); arrangements of music by Alma Mahler, Zemlinsky, Schreker and Schoenberg for septet, for the opening of the Gustav Klimt exhibition at Tate Liverpool (2008); orchestrations of seven songs for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (Electricity, Joan of Arc, Native Daughters of the Golden West, Radio Prague, Sailing on the Seven Seas, Souvenir, Walking on the Milky Way, 2009); orchestrations of six songs for Syriana (2011); orchestrations of four songs for Ian Broudie (2014); orchestrations of six songs for Cate Le Bon (2014); three string tracks for Blind Faith, the final album by the sorely missed Black aka Colin Vearncombe (2015); two string tracks for Jules Maxwell (2017); two tracks – one strings, one strings and horns – for the ‘Russian Bob Dylan’, Boris Grebenshchikov (2017); and a further six songs for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (2018) for performance with the RLPO on 6-7 October 2018 at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (Ghost Star, Messages, Sealand, Statues, The Avenue, The New Dark Age).