Mark Simpson interview: Liverpool-born classical composer
Liverpool-born Mark Simpson emerged as a prodigious musical talent when he became the first person to win the BBC Young Musician and Proms Young Composer of the Year awards in the same year.
The composer and clarinettist has built on this success over the last decade, bagging numerous other accolades and performing with some of the UK’s most illustrious orchestras before securing the post of Composer in Association with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
Your Move caught up with the classical music star to discuss the challenges of balancing performing and writing, Liverpool’s orchestral music scene and his forthcoming commissions.
Interview by Mark Langshaw
Where does your passion for classical music stem from?
There was a really enthusiastic head teacher at my primary school, St Margaret’s in Anfield, and he taught us all the recorder so we could play in assembly. The year after that I was offered free music lessons through the council’s Liverpool Music Support Service and was given the choice between clarinet and flute. I took to the clarinet simply because I could make a noise out of it.
After that I went to King David High School which had a really good music department. I also travelled to Manchester to attend the Royal Northern College of Music at the weekends and was in the council’s Saturday morning music school and Merseyside Youth Orchestra, which is now the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.
There was a brilliant infrastructure in place in Liverpool when I was a youngster for me to feed off and that was accompanied by the opportunity to watch concerts at the Philharmonic Hall. From the word go there was a lot of great music and teaching going on in the city.
How has Liverpool’s heritage as a musical city helped you in your career?
Liverpool is one of the greatest musical cities in Europe. From a classical point of view, the heritage of its orchestra goes back hundreds of years and you have some of the most significant musical figures coming to the city to perform, conduct and write.
The orchestra is the jewel in the crown of the Liverpool music scene and it’s always been proactive when it comes to nurturing young talent. It also has its contemporary music ensemble, Ensemble 10/10, and that for me was incredibly significant while growing up because it exposed me to music I would otherwise have never known existed.
You performed at the internationally renowned Wigmore Hall in London at the age of 17. What are your memories of that show?
The gig at Wigmore Hall came fresh off the back of the Young Musician of the Year award so I was still in the mindset of playing relatively high profile concerts but it did feel like a big deal at the time. There was a lot of preparation involved and a new piece was commissioned for it. It was frightening in a sense but I enjoy those high pressure gigs.
What effect did your double award success in 2006 have on your career?
That kind of formal recognition definitely opened doors for me. I don’t think I would have had the career I’ve had without that, but you have to manage things carefully after something like that; play the gigs you want to do and remain true to yourself. At the same time, it’s difficult to say no to things.
It’s been a brilliant door-opening experience in many ways, but on the other hand there are times when I’ve found it difficult to balance the writing and the playing side of things.
So you have to make compromises between performing and composing?
It’s incredibly difficult to balance the two. I always try to leave space between playing projects and writing projects. I’ve never felt like it’s a compromise as such, but there are times when I’ve had to cancel the odd clarinet concert that’s appeared in my diary to give me room to write.
Projects vary in size, scope and scale and my schedule is always in flux. Sometimes it works to balance playing and writing and other times it doesn’t. That’s kind of the nature of the beast.
How does playing somebody else’s music compare to hearing your own compositions being performed?
Whenever I go to hear a piece of my own music there are always nerves mixed in with the excitement. Hearing something you created and spent a lot of time working on for the first time is always a bit strange, but I don’t feel that way when I’m performing other people’s music because there’s a sense of being more in control of what you’re doing. I love having the opportunity to play new music.
How is your role as composer in association with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra going?
It’s an incredibly rewarding experience being able to write music for an orchestra over several years, building up a rapport with the musicians, getting to know their strengths and writing to that capacity. From my point of view it’s amazing because I now have a certain amount of work ahead of me, three years’ worth of orchestra music that I get to write.
It’s a very varied role. At the moment I’m in playing mode and have recently performed in Scotland, London, Manchester and Oxford. It’s been hectic, giving me little time to sit down and write, but I have between now and February free to sit at the piano and compose. The pieces tend to shift and shape depending on how much time I have to work on a project.
Are you working on any new compositions for the orchestra at the moment?
I’m writing a cello concerto at the moment and have a piano trio lined up after that. I like to think there’s a real emotional depth to the music I write as I try to write multi-layered orchestral textures which use the orchestra in a way that audiences might not necessarily have heard before.
There’s always a strong narrative structure in my work, a sense of being taken on a journey or uplifted to another realm and that will be reflected in my next piece.