As the BBC Philharmonic prepare to perform the world premier of Mark Simpson’s Cello Concerto, Jan Clarke talks to the highly respected composer and musician about his journey from the humble recorder to rave reviews of his epic composition, The Immortal.
Mark Simpson is an old soul transported into the body of a young, working class Liverpudlian. His creative genius, musical insight and career accomplishments to date, reach far, far beyond his years. He is a young man full of spirit and depth who is on a road -which I can’t help feel is predestined -to greatness.
Mark is the current Composer in Residence for the BBC Philharmonic in Salford, he’s a clarinettist, conductor and musical polymath, who is also presently working with writer, poet and librettist Melanie Challenger, on a new opera entitled, Pleasure.
A little daunted by the task of trying to fit his achievements into the next few pages, the easiest thing for me to do is to start at the beginning. For this, we need to go back to Mark’s days in junior school, where at the age of seven, he began to play the recorder.
Mark tells me, “I had a very enthusiastic teacher at Primary School who introduced me to classical music. She would play pieces to us in class or during assemblies and it lit a spark in me.”
He further to explains, how he was lucky enough to be the recipient of a fantastic support system through Liverpool City Council and that, through a council- based initiative, he was given a clarinet at the age of nine. Mark adds, “I remember being so overwhelmed that I had been given this incredible, brand- new instrument. It was so special to me.”
Mark’s natural talent quickly became evident. Music was his obsession and he joined a wind band, where he spent his Saturday mornings practicing and playing. He says, “I loved being part of a musical team, there was always something to strive for and someone to look up to. I remember as a junior member being in awe of the seniors and couldn’t wait to become one.”
Fast forward to 2006 when, at the grand old age of 17, Mark became the first ever winner of both the BBC Young Musician and BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year Competitions and remains the only person in history to have won both competitions. He went on to read Music St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, graduating with first class honours, before undertaking postgraduate studies in composition with Julian Anderson at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Music runs right into the very heart of Mark, for him it’s how he connects with the world.
Listening, playing or writing all offer a deep and even spiritual level of communication and it’s the medium he uses to express what’s inside himself. Inspiration comes from many things including poetry, philosophy, his questions surrounding the human condition and the journey both past, present and future we are all on. As he talks around the notion of where a creative idea comes from, we touch on the concept of whether creativity is in-fact an otherworldly gift and I am offered a small glimpse into the mind of this extraordinary man.
For someone so young, Mark’s journey as a clarinettist and as composer is already littered with milestones and awards: He has performed globally and worked with conductors such as Vasily Petrenko, Gianandrea Noseda, Baldur Brönnimann and Yan Pascal Tortelier. His accomplishments are testament to his talent and expose his passion for new music and his ideals of wanting to bring classical music into the lives of young people.
Being the recipient of the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Award in 2010 led to the premier of a new ensemble work, Lethe, at the Royal Festival Hall, London and other commissions include Israfel, for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and sparks, which was premiered at the Last Night of the Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
His composition Exile, for the National Youth Choirs was performed at the Royal Albert Hall. But, it was after receiving the Sky Academy Arts Scholarship, that Mark first started to work on his now epic oratorio, The Immortal. This composition began as his scholarship project in 2014-2015 and became an incredible score for a grand cast including baritone, chorus and orchestra.
Described by Times critic Richard Morrison as “the most thrilling new choral work I have heard in years. At 26, what a prospect he is.” The Immortal, was premiered by the BBC Philharmonic at the 2015 Manchester International Festival to rave reviews and heralded Simpson, a huge rising star. This in turn has paved the way to Simpson being named as the Composer in Residence for the BBC Philharmonic in Salford, a role that will run until 2019.
This new opportunity will give Mark the space to develop further his already distinctive and compelling compositional voice and, is a role that works in perfect harmony with the BBC’s philosophy of focusing on composters and musicians who have lived and studied, here in the north.
The BBC Philharmonic will perform the World Premiere of Mark Simpson’s Cello Concerto at the Bridgewater Hall on Saturday 21 April at 7.30pm alongside music by Strauss and Shostakovich.