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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

A tribute to composer Janet Owen Thomas by Steve Crowther

In memoriam Janet Owen Thomas (1961-2002)

I never met Janet Owen Thomas, even though she lived near me in Holgate, York. I did speak with her on the phone however, inviting Janet to compose a short piece for a small ensemble.

It was the early days of Late Music and I worked with Director David Power. It was then called the Late Music Festival with a strapline: The Cutting Edge, and the following year, The Cutting Edge gets Sharper. The concerts were a niche market, and quite often the niche didn’t bother turning up. Low audiences with marginal box office revenue did not appeal to grant-funding bodies and so there was, as Kwasi Kwarteng discovered many years later, little in the way of inward investment. So we decided to change our marketing strategy, or rather, develop one. Living Composers, performed Live. This really sounded unique and, apart from the Go West Festival in Wales, it was. The main issue here was that quite a few of the living composers we programmed were no longer with us after we had gone to print. We then went nuts and threw the kitchen sink at the programming. The concerts now included jazz, Indian music, gamelan, crossover, loads of fusions; we even dug up Beethoven. Anyway, this Long and Winding Road led us to where we are today. So back to Janet.

OK, so this next bit isn’t going to sound professional or cool; not that I have ever been professional or cool. Janet said she would be interested and then caught me off guard with: ‘What will the commission fee be?’ I started laughing and said: ‘you’re kidding?’ She wasn’t.

I have often thought Late Music should host a memorial concert of Janet’s music. And we will. I thought this programme note written by Anthony Gilbert – for a short piano piece called Monsoon Toccata, was very touching, very moving. It feels so right and so fitting to include this in Anthony’s own Late Music memorial concert.

Monsoon Toccata by Anthony Gilbert (for solo piano). In memoriam Janet Owen Thomas (1961-2002).

‘In 1988, Janet Owen Thomas met up with me in Sydney at the end of a short organ-recital tour - possibly her last before devoting herself entirely to composing. We returned to England together, doing a rapid circular tour of Northern India on the way. Alighting from the plane at Delhi we were hit by the whirling wind and torrential rain of the seasonal monsoon, and early the following morning there was also a minor earthquake. This experience determined the spirit of the music, and Northern Indian Raga determines the purely technical approach, with the quasi-improvisatory toccata-like textures acting as decoration to a slow-moving, widely-spaced modal top line which almost loses control of the overall shape at the mid-point - a reflection of the impact of those natural phenomena.’ A.G.

A tribute to Janet Owen Thomas from the British Music Collection:

‘Janet Owen Thomas leapt to prominence with the UK premier of Rosaces at the 1991 BBC Proms, where she was the youngest composer featured that year. The work has now been performed in over a dozen countries worldwide.

Born on Merseyside of Welsh and German parentage, Janet Owen Thomas was already composing actively when she entered Merchant Taylors Girls School, before reading music at St Hugh’s College Oxford where her teachers included Jane Glover and later Robert Saxton (composition).

Following the premiere of her choral New and Better Days, commissioned to mark the opening of Liverpool’s new Tate Gallery, she spent a year reading for a degree in Music Technology at York University before taking advanced composition studies with Anthony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music. It was at this time that she developed an interest in fractals, on which she has written a number of articles. In 1992 she wrote her Concerto Grosso Cantus for Bang-on-a-Can (the only British work scheduled for that year’s festival), subsequently performed at the Goldberg Ensemble’s Contemporary series at the RNCM, at Manchester University and broadcast by R3, leading to the series of small ensemble works which have been extensively performed and broadcast.

Always structurally based, her work is seldom purely abstract in concept, but often employs intellectual processes and disciplined form to shape and clarify ideas that find their stimuli in extra-musical inspirational areas. She was active in many musical genres with a special affinity and flair for ensemble and solo, particularly vocal, writing - qualities combined in Under the Skin (a BBC Commission for the 1999 Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary music), and the strong rhythmic and harmonic sense that permeates the Preludes for Piano of which a selection was premiered in London in 2000.

Widely performed in the UK, Janet Owen Thomas is perhaps better-known overseas, and enjoyed recent performances in the US, Germany, France, Denmark, Spain and Eire. In Britain she was commissioned or performed by the BBC, Goldberg Ensemble, Park Lane Group, the Allegri and Bingham Quartets, Gemini, Boccherini String Trio, Stephen De Pledge, Mary Wiegold, Lontano, Kevin Bowyer, the Option Band and others. She lived and worked in York dividing her time teaching, writing and composition; at the time of her sudden death in June 2002 she was about to embark on a commission for a concertante for organ, strings and percussion.’

In her obituary for Janet Owen Thomas, fellow composer Nicola LeFanu described the former's musical style as follows:

‘The hallmark of her style is linear counterpoint; the music is carefully constructed to allow for self-similarity in its proportions, both in the large and in the detail. In speaking of her work, Thomas acknowledged the influence of the 17th-and 18th-century music which she played so much in her days as an organist. Her contrapuntal textures are transformed, though, by the "shimmer and glitter" which she loved.’

Here is a recording of Do Not Go Gentle: V. Double Cannon performed by the ever-excellent Bingham String Quartet.

Anthony Gilbert's Monsoon Toccata :In memoriam Janet Owen Thomas (1961-2002) will be performed by the wonderful pianist Kate Ledger at the next Late Music concert: 7.30pm Saturday 2 December 2023.

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