Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, Judith Weir studied in London and at Cambridge. She has taught widely in Britain, Sweden, and the United States (Princeton and Harvard). From 1995 to 1999, she was Fairborn Composer in Association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. She was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1995.
Weir's career has unfolded partly as a series of intense involvements with specific cultures: a Chinese phase in the mid-1980s, a brief Spanish period in the late '80s, and at other times an extensive involvement in Balkan sources (Serbian Cabaret and other works). In still other works, she has invented imaginary folk musics (Airs from Another Planet, subtitled "traditional music from outer space"). She spent much of the 1980s working in opera and music theater (A Night at the Chinese Opera, The Vanishing Bridegroom, Blond Eckbert). More recently, Weir has written a Piano Trio commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, incidental music for Peter Hall's production of King Lear at the Old Vic, Natural History for soprano Dawn Upshaw, We Are Shadows for the CBSO and its three choruses, the welcome arrival of rain for the Minnesota Orchestra, and Tiger under the Table for the London Sinfonietta.
Weir and pianist William Howard had discussed the idea of a piano concerto, but, she says, "it always seemed as if our idea of a piano concerto was not the same as everybody else's. Ever since the modern piano was born, the composition of piano concertos has been on an inflationary spiral, and it is now a musical form associated with the crashingly loud side of music - which is not the kind of music I generally like to write. But knowing of William's performances of such small-scale concertos as the Mozart K. 449 with as few as five strings in the accompanying orchestra, I was inspired to write him a contemporary piece which similarly lives in the space between chamber music and bravura-filled spectacle. The first performance (at the 1997 Spitalfields Festival in London) was performed with an orchestra of nine solo strings, led from the keyboard. Subsequent performances have sometimes involved much larger string orchestras, often directed by a conductor. But this doesn't seem to have altered the essentially intimate character of the music.
"The work is in three movements and lasts about fifteen minutes. The first movement, basically an allegro, establishes the balance between piano and strings - as much a balance of timbres as of dynamics. The second movement, a florid completion of a fragmentary English folksong called 'The Sweet Primeroses,' has rightly been described as a threnody, opening with a muted ensemble of lower strings. The final movement exhibits rude energy which has reminded some listeners of Scottish traditional music (perhaps an enthusiastic strathspey-and-reel orchestra sliding about on the strings), although I was not thinking of folk music when I wrote it."