Composer and clarinettist Mark Simpson reflects on performing at the Proms
Last week saw the London premiere of my orchestral concert opener Israfel at the BBC Proms with the orchestra with which I am Composer in Association, the BBC Philharmonic, and their chief conductor Juanjo Mena. In this work I wanted to capture the many sides of the Koranic angel of music, as described by Edgar Allen Poe in his poem of the same name. I imagined an all-encompassing, powerful spirit that was capable of evoking a multitude of expressions: euphoria, fear, anguish, ecstasy, pain, love, loss and suffering… A lot to cram into 11 minutes! It’s a work I’m proud of and glad to be sharing with the world once more, this being its second outing since the premiere in 2013.
My relationship with the Proms started in 2004, when I was principal clarinet with the National Youth Orchestra. The Proms concert was the highlight of our year; I remember the excitement and the searing emotion like it was yesterday. I then came back in 2012 for the premiere of sparks, my concert opener for the Last Night of the Proms, and in 2015 performed Nielsen’s fiendishly difficult (I think the hardest!) Clarinet Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis. For all these performances one thing was consistent: the amazing Proms audience. Performing or presenting a work at this festival is a very special thing. The intent with which they listen, the careful respect, the desire for brilliant music making is present from the moment the first note is played. This gives the hall a rare, special atmosphere that I really cherish. It’s a brilliant experience.
Just before my performance of the Nielsen concerto in 2015 I had the premiere of what was then my largest work, The Immortal, at the Manchester International Festival with the BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena, EXAUDI, the Manchester Chamber Choir and baritone Mark Stone. I had been imagining it for years and it was only through the help of a Sky Academy Arts Scholarship that I was able to realise my vision for the work, which took me a year to plan and a further 10 months to write. The piece is a 35-minute orchestral séance for baritone, semi-chorus, chorus and orchestra, in which the protaganist, Frederic Myers, does not know if he is alive or dead. It is inspired by the stranger than fiction happenings of the Society for Psychical Research. Frederic Myers’ life’s work was built on the pretense that we could prove through scientific rationalism that there was life beyond death. In actual fact he was desperately searching for his long lost childhood sweetheart, who tragically committed suicide in her early twenties. Earlier this year the work won the Classical Music Award at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards, something I was not expecting but for which I am deeply grateful.
Since the Prom I've travelled to the Edinburgh Festival for a concert with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Antoine Tamestit. On Friday we played a programme of trios for the clarinet, viola and piano by Schumann, Kurtág and Stroppa, as well as a new trio by myself, with a second performance at the Salzburg Festival on August 14. After this I’ll be starting my first official commission as Composer in Association with the BBC Philharmonic, a concerto for cello and orchestra to be premiered on May 27 next year with Leonard Elschenbroich and Juanjo Mena.