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Owen Underhill lives in Vancouver where he is active as a composer, conductor, artistic director and faculty member in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University.
As a composer, Underhill writes for diverse combinations including orchestra, voice and choir, and a wide variety of chamber music ranging from traditional ensembles to groupings of unusual instrumentation. He has a special interest in large-scale interdisciplinary collaborations, having composed a number of works for dance as well as his 1994 opera The Star Catalogues. Among his most recent compositions are String Quartet #4: The Night (2011) commissioned by the Quatuor Bozzini, Three Sitka Songs (2010) commissioned by the Vancouver Bach Choir with poetry of Robert Davis Hoffmann, Slender Gold (2011) for an ensemble comprising Chinese and western instruments and Imprint (2010), a large-scale interdisciplinary work created with choreographer Henry Daniel. His Canzone di Petra (2004), a piece for flute and harp commissioned by Heidi Krutzen and Lorna McGhee, was the winner of the 2007 Western Canadian Music Outstanding Composition Award. His orchestral work Lines of Memory won first prize in the 1994 du Maurier Canadian Composers’ Competition and his Love Songs was nominated for a Juno in 2002. His music has many different expressions and has been described as dense and interesting, colourful, lyrical in inspiration, exuberant and witty, subtle, and thoughtful.
His compositions have been performed by leading music organizations in Canada including Arraymusic, Quatuor Bozzini, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Esprit Orchestra, Vancouver Cantata Singers, musica intima, the Vancouver Symphony, Vancouver Bach Choir and the Turning Point Ensemble. Recent international performances have included the premiere of two new chamber works by the CrossSound Festival in Alaska, a Boston premiere by the King’s Chapel Choir and Arcadian Winds, and a performance of his One Page Sonata in Bratislava, Slovakia. His music has been included on several recordings including his disc Celestial Machine on the Artifact Music label. A new disc of his music called Still Image will be released on the Centrediscs label in 2012.
As a conductor, Underhill is a member of the Turning Point Ensemble, one of Canada’s most distinctive and accomplished large-size chamber ensembles. In addition, he has made conducting appearances with orchestras and ensembles including the Vancouver Symphony, CBC Radio Orchestra, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Vancouver New Music Ensemble, and musica intima. Underhill has been especially active in contemporary music and music of the early twentieth century. He has conducted well over 100 premieres by Canadian composers including Glenn Buhr, Christopher Butterfield, Michael Bushnell, Chan Ka-nin, José Evangelista, Anthony Genge, Melissa Hui, Rudolf Komorous, Michael Oesterle, John Oliver, Rodney Sharman and Linda Catlin Smith. He has conducted works in collaboration with several prominent international composers including Louis Andriessen, Gavin Bryars, Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli, James MacMillan, Steve Reich, Toru Takemitsu, and Judith Weir. Underhill’s discography as a conductor includes a recording of the music of Gavin Bryars with the CBC Radio Orchestra (CBC Records), two discs with the Vancouver New Music Ensemble (Centrediscs and CBC Records), and three recordings with the Turning Point Ensemble (“Liquid” on the ATMA label, “Strange Sphere: music of Rudolf Komorous” on the Artifact label, and “Disasters of the Sun: music of Barbara Pentland on Centrediscs). As a conductor, he is committed to bringing the composer’s vision off the page with directness and clarity. His conducting has been described as sensitive, vigorous, precise, and exhibiting panache.
Active as a programmer and promoter of contemporary music, Underhill was Artistic Director of Vancouver New Music from 1987 to 2000, a period of substantial growth for the organization. He is currently Artistic Co-Director of the Turning Point Ensemble, a large chamber ensemble of outstanding Vancouver musicians dedicated to the celebration of twentieth century music and new music. He has been active as an arts advocate and supporter of Canadian music organizations, and has been active for many years with the Canadian Music Centre, serving as the President since 2010.
Underhill has been an SFU faculty member since 1981, and is currently Director of the School for the Contemporary Arts. He was active for many years in the planning for a new building for the School for the Contemporary Arts in downtown Vancouver. Since September 2010 the School for the Contemporary Arts is now in a dynamic new facility as part of the Woodward’s redevelopment. Underhill is still active on the startup of this extraordinary project through serving as Director of the SFU Woodward’s Cultural Unit.