Sally Beamish is known internationally as a concert composer. She has received commissions from the USA, Japan, Australia, Scandinavia and Europe, and her music has been broadcast worldwide.
She was born in London in 1956 and started writing music and playing the piano at an early age. She later studied viola at the Royal Northern College of Music, where she also received composition lessons from Anthony Gilbert and Sir Lennox Berkeley. She went on to study in Germany with the Italian violist Bruno Giuranna.
Although she always considered herself primarily a composer, for a decade her career centred on the viola, particularly as a member of the Raphael Ensemble, with whom she made four discs of string sextets. Many opportunities to develop her compositional skills arose from her playing with the London Sinfonietta and Lontano; through this she became acquainted with many prominent composers, gaining valuable insights into their music and working methods.
In 1989 she received an Arts Council Composer’s Bursary, and moved from London to Scotland, where she and her husband, cellist Robert Irvine, founded the Chamber Group of Scotland, with co-director James MacMillan, and where Beamish’s career as a composer really began to flourish. Since moving to Scotland she has received a steady stream of commissions, and in 1994 and 1995 was Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ assistant on the SCO composers’ course in Hoy. In September 1994 she received the prestigious Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for outstanding achievement in composition. In 2001 Sally Beamish was the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Music (DMus) from Glasgow University, for her services to musical life in Scotland.
Her orchestral output is considerable, including two symphonies (for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Royal Scottish National Orchestra/ LPO (respectively)), and the concerto form is a continuing source of inspiration to her. She has written concertos for violin (Anthony Marwood/ BBCSSO), three for viola (Philip Dukes, Proms 1995, London Mozart Players, Tabea Zimmermann/ Swedish and Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and Lawrence Power/Scottish Ensemble), cello (Robert Cohen/Academy of St. Martin in the Fields), oboe (Douglas Boyd/ Premiere Ensemble), saxophone (John Harle/St Magnus Festival)/ Swedish Chamber Orchestra), trumpet (Håkan Hardenberger/ National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, Proms 2003, percussion (Evelyn Glennie/Tromsø Symphony Orchestra in 2004, flute (Sharon Bezaly/Royal Scottish National Orchestra, 2005) and in 2006, commissioned in honour of her 50th birthday, a concerto for accordion (James Crabb/ Hallé Orchestra, at the Cheltenham Festival).
Her first major CD (1999), on the BIS label, features three of these concertos, and a second CD was released in 2000 featuring the saxophone concerto (“The Imagined Sound of Sun of Stone”). A third CD including the 2nd viola concerto, with soloist Tabea Zimmermann, was released in 2007. All three are recorded by The Swedish Chamber Orchestra with Ola Rudner, and all have received exceptional reviews. A disc of cello music, “Bridging the Day” was released in 2001, with Robert Irvine, followed by the string quartets in 2005, with the Emperor Quartet. A CD of larger orchestral music has been recorded by the RSNO with Martyn Brabbins, featuring soloists Anthony Marwood and Sharon Bezaly, and is due for release on BIS in 2010.
Beamish is also active in writing for non-professional forces, as well as for theatre. She has written a children’s nativity musical, as well as works for amateur strings and full orchestra, and is completing a series of works, commissioned by Children’s Classic Concerts, which feature the different sections of the orchestra. The stage musical, “Shenachie”, written with Donald Goodbrand Saunders, was premiered by her local amateur theatre company in 2006 and reached the finals of the Highland Quest, a Cameron Mackintosh competition with Eden Court Theatre.
Beamish was one of the first artists to win a “Creative Scotland” Award from the Scottish Arts Council, which enabled her to develop her oratorio for the 2001 BBC Proms (Knotgrass Elegy: librettist Donald Goodbrand Saunders), premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Sir Andrew Davis.
She has worked for BBC Radio Manchester and Radio Scotland as a presenter of music programmes, and has written several scores for film and television, one of which won a Scottish BAFTA in 2003 for Best Composer.
Her arrangements of Debussy as a Suite for Cello and Orchestra were premiered in 2007 by Steven Isserlis and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota, to critical acclaim. Recent works include ‘The Lion and the Deer’ for Portsmouth Grammar School choir, with Michael Chance and the London Mozart Players, and a concerto for the Rascher Saxophone Quartet.
Future projects include concertos for cellist Robert Cohen, and for percussionist Colin Currie.