Throughout 2017, Casa da Música in Porto, presented a year-long season of UK classical music, in partnership with the British Council and the GREAT Campaign. We invited nine of Britian’s finest young composers to talk to us and showcase their work on the back of this celebration of British music – among them, the hugely talented Mark Simpson.
In 2006, Mark became the first ever winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year and BBC Proms / Guardian Young Composer of the Year competitions. After graduating from St. Catherine’s College, Oxford he studied under Julian Anderson at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama before being selected for representation by the Young Classical Artists Trust. In 2010, he was among the three winners of the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize and from 2012 to 2014 he was a BBC New Generation Artist. These days, when he's not composing, he can be found performing as a clarinetist – he made his Wigmore Hall debut aged 17 and has appeared as a soloist with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, BBC Philharmonic, BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Northern Sinfonia. He is also Visiting Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Simpson’s first disc on NMC, Prism, featured him as performer; his second disc for NMC, released in 2016, features his own chamber and ensemble works including "Night Music", a cello and piano piece written for Leonard Elschenbroich and premiered at the Wigmore Hall.
We spoke to Mark about his work and his thoughts on access to music and music education.
What led you to learn the clarinet?
My primary school head teacher was a classical music enthusiast, she would choose a piece of classical music to play as we walked in to assembly every day, the title of which was written on a big blackboard at the front of the hall. She taught us the recorder and let us play along with the hymns. This was my first formative introduction to music. I remember shortly after that I was offered the chance to play the clarinet or flute by a local peripatetic woodwind teacher from the local council. We stood in a line and were asked to come into a room one by one where she held the mouth piece of a clarinet and flute. We were asked to blow into both and whichever we made a sound out of we were given to play. Mine was the clarinet.
How do you manage to juggle the competing demands of performing as a soloist, performing in ensembles and composing?
Careful planning and maintaining the joy and love of making music! It's important to keep perspective and remember the power that music has on people. I'm incredibly grateful for what I do!
Do you find playing aids your composing or vice versa or are they very separate pursuits to you?
Playing has always aided my approach to writing music. Playing in the National Youth Orchestra gave me great insight into the physicality of playing great orchestral music for instance. Being right in the middle of the orchestra as a clarinettist, you're perfectly placed to hear and feel everything around you. I remember trying to conjure up similar feelings when sketching orchestral pieces. It's vital for me to get a sense of the physicality of the music I'm making otherwise I feel disconnected from it.
I don't think ticket prices are the problem ... I think the problem is actually access to and the visibility of classical music in state schools
I've always loved playing new music. As a youngster that's how I built my clarinet technique. I went to the junior department of the RNCM [Royal Northern College of Music] and was lucky enough to have access to the library of the college. I would just play anything I could get my hands on. If I didn't know it, I’d take it home and play it, similarly with orchestral scores.
I read that when you were playing in the Liverpool Youth Orchestra you were given £2 tickets for Liverpool Philharmonic concerts. Today, do you think youngsters are being priced out of attending concerts and is there a potential threat to new musical talent coming through as a result?
I don't think ticket prices are the problem. Most, if not all, orchestral or operatic or musical institutions have great schemes for young people to attend concerts. Granted, the £2 ticket scheme for under 18s was particularly good when I was growing up but there are now free events run by the brilliant Cavatina trust who fund tickets for young people. I think the problem is actually access to and the visibility of classical music in state schools. The infrastructure that was in place for me as a youngster to develop through the ranks of local music support services, on to county and then national ones, does not exist in the way it did.
If you could change anything about music education in the UK, what would it be?
I would give local councils more money to fund music services for under-18s. I'd go back to a system where musical instruments were taught in classes of three to five maximum. I'd move away from the broader "holistic" approach – i.e. bands and groups with wide ranges of ages and abilities – and something more focussed and hierarchical: junior, intermediate and then advanced bands. Give the kids something to aspire to, to work towards, to strive for excellence.
What projects have you got coming up that you can tell us about?
On 21 April, Leonard Elschenbroich and the BBC Philharmonic will premiere my cello concerto at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester!
Mark Simpson's compositions are published by Boosey & Hawkes.
Mark Simpson on Soundcloud
The Year Of British Music
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