By Andrew McBirnie
and Sebastian Lakes
Aurelia (1993), a commission from Sounds Positive, is for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano.
The piece is an intense and highly structured evocation of the deranged nightmares of a
lunatic (related to the writings of Gerard de Nerval) coupled with the idea of changes
taking place within a butterfly chrysalis. This gives rise to a frantic, violent and highly
exciting middle section, framed on either side by slower and more atmospheric music. The
score bears a Chang Tse quote "I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was
a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming that I am a man".
Sift (1994) was commissioned by Louisiana State University to celebrate its 50th Annual
Festival of Contemporary Music. It was first performed at that festival in 1995, with
Penri-Evans being a guest composer, alongside Milton Babbitt. In this work a splash of
multi-layered complexity leads into a wide ranging, unison string melody. The piece
proceeds in a series of waves to a strident climax, after which it returns, via a shortened
palindrome, to its point of origin. As with much of David's music, the emotional content is
as important as any other factor.
Although these pieces are a good deal more complex than much he has written in the past,
those who know David's music will clearly recognise his distinctive musical personality.
David Penri-Evans was born in Wrexham, Wales in
1956, and his Welsh heritage is an important element in his
music. Both his Brass Quintet-Ynys Môn (1979) and
String Quartet-Dinas Brân have Welsh locations as their
points of origin (Anglesey and Llangollen respectively) and
in each there is a sense of rugged bleakness. Even later
works such as Six Pieces for Offa (1987) have a mystic
atmosphere (Offa's Dyke runs near his childhood home).
American composer Ned Rorem said of Penri-Evans'
Song of Youth (1986) that his music sounds like New
Orleans jazz heard through a Celtic mist.
Jazz has not directly influenced Penri-Evans' music,
yet often in his harmonic language you get the feel
that you are only a step away from the Blues.
Indeed, the mood of the Blues and a sense of
isolation pervades much of his music. Penri-Evans
spent nine years studying composition in Louisiana.
First at Centenary College, Shreveport, in the north
of the state, then at Louisiana State University in
Baton Rouge on the banks of the Mississippi, where
he was awarded a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) in
Composition in 1986. It was during this time that he
studied with Dinos Constantinides who had a great
influence on him, both musically and philosophically.
Constantinides' rigorous approach to composition and the professional life of a composer
struck a sympathetic chord. Penri-Evans' music is always clearly structured and listening to it,
one feels that the composer knows exactly what he is doing. America proved a fertile soil for
his composing. There he produced a large number of works including a Symphony (1983) and
a one-act opera, Study in Grey (1985). Both of these were performed in the U.S. but neither
has yet been heard in Britain.
On returning to Britain in 1986, Penri-Evans
immediately set about organising a contemporary
music festival, Tempo, first in Wrexham and then in
Portsmouth. Tempo attracted such performers as
the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth
Symphony Orchestra, members of the London
Sinfonietta, Icebreaker and the Kreutzer Quartet,
and guest composers such as Penderecki, Robert
Saxton and James MacMillan. Since he was living and teaching in Portsmouth he also
established the Portsmouth District Composers' Alliance (PDCA), of which he is still the
Chairman. This group organises several concerts and other events each year and has
received funding form a number of bodies. He served as Treasurer of the Composers Guild
of Great Britain 1992-98 and was Principal Examiner for composition OCR (the Oxford
and Cambridge A level exam board), 1992-2000. 2006 he has been elected again to the
Executive Committee of the British Academy for Composers and Songwriters.
He has appeared as guest composer at the LSU Festival of Contemporary Music in 1990
and 1995 and also at the Conservatoire National de Region de Rouen in 2000 and returned
to Louisiana as a guest composer in 2006.
Penri-Evans' teaching career has been extensive and he sees it as an integral part of his
musical life. His first post was at Victoria College, Jersey in the Channel Islands (1979-81).
After his return to Britain in 1986, he was appointed as Assistant Director of Music at
Portsmouth Grammar School (1987-92). He was also appointed as an Assistant Professor
of Music at the American University in London (a post he still holds). He has served as
Director of Music at Elmhurst Ballet School and the John Lyon School, Harrow. He also
taught undergraduate courses at Royal Holloway College, University of London.
Since September 1996 David has been teaching at Brooklands College, Weybridge where
he is Head of Music. There he leads the National Diploma courses in Popular Music and
Although teaching takes up much of his time, in addition to his work
for the PDCA, David does still find time to compose. His most recent
works have taken on a new complexity in both harmonic language and
rhythm. His most recent work is a piano trio, Rain Journal, based on
a gay love poem by Lee Harwood.