Mark Simpson's top 10 contemporary classical recordings

Mark Simpson
Thursday, May 19, 2011

Nurturing our contemporary music culture through the recent arts cuts is of paramount concern to musicians and arts institutions across the whole country. As we navigate our way from a mainly state-funded artistic culture to a philanthropic one, as in America, we can be safe in the knowledge that the attitude towards contemporary music is at its most positive, both from players and audiences.

This is reflected in my own work as a composer, clarinettist and conductor. For the final three terms of my degree I was the artistic director of the Oxford University Sinfonietta. I threw some of the most challenging works from the repertoire at students between the ages of 18 and 22; we performed Adès’s Living Toys, Simon Holt’s Sparrow Night and Julian Anderson’s Alhambra Fantasy amongst others. Not once did anyone complain. Players love a challenge, and, in my experience, so do audiences. 

Gone are the days when audiences boycotted the premieres of our country’s greatest composers – people flocked to Harrison Birtwistle’s Minotaur and Mark Turnage’s Anna Nicole. Club nights that specialise in the performance of classical music have sprung up all over London and underground events are attracting more and more people. Boundaries between artistic disciplines are being blurred as artists are collaborating from a number of interdisciplinary fields and people search for new ways of presenting music to the public. 

However, we must make sure that in trying to actively engage new audiences we do not lose sight of the importance of compositional technique and craftsmanship. Part of the experience is going to the event and taking part, but surely we are there to appreciate the music and not be seen as part of a ‘scene’. This is my only worry with this new development. Hybrid forms of multimedia like this must be approached from the angle of a specialist in both fields to truly say something that is innovative and creative. Its difficult not to offend either the contemporary music specialists performing the work or the DJs who spend their lives specialising in working with this technology.

Perhaps one of the most important institutions we have today that promotes new music amongst young people is the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Not only does it run its own composition course alongside the orchestral course (both of which I was lucky enough to be a part of as a teenager) but its programming reflects an active concern in the music of today placing it firmly at the front of British musical culture. 

The importance of education and outreach is also important in keeping contemporary music alive. Myself and an equally active student in contemporary music from Cambridge, Kate Whitely (a composer and pianist who curates concerts and runs educations events) have been running education projects in Oxford as part of the Oxford Chamber Music Festival for three years. We spend three days performing new music in schools around the Oxfordshire county, introducing them to music they will have never encountered. Bringing live music to these youngsters is one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences. I remember vividly analysing the slow movement of Copland’s Sextet in front of a group of year 10 students, describing how with the simplest of compositional materials Copland creates the most powerful emotional effect. We then performed it and the room was left in silence for about ten seconds.

It is important too to consider the nurturing of new music outside of London. The pioneering work of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s Ensemble 10/10 has commissioned some fantastic works by Liverpool-based composers and introduced North-West audiences to staple classics of the repertoire in spell-binding performances. In 2009 it won an RPS award for its ingenious programming and commissioning. I am proud to have benefited from such a fantastic organisation. But, there is always a silver-lining and the work of the other contemporary music organisation outside of London, BCMG has been threatened by 100 per cent cuts in its funding.

These are difficult times for everyone involved in the arts in this country. But, we need to keep in sight the myriad reasons why we do what we do.

Mark Simpson's top 10 contemporary classical recordings

1. Simon Holt Sparrow Night
Nash Ensemble / Lionel Friend (NMC D008) NMC

2. Gary Carpenter Die Flimmerkiste
Pamela Nash, Ensemble 10/10 / Clark Rundell and Gary Carpenter (NMC D111) NMC

3. Mark-Anthony Turnage Drowned Out
CSBO / Sir Simon Rattle (EMI) Amazon - download

4. Thomas Adès Living Toys
London Sinfonietta / Markus Stenz (EMI) Amazon

5. John Adams El Niño
Hunt Lieberson, Upshaw, White, Deutsche SO Berlin / Kent Nagano (Nonesuch) Amazon

6. Bent Sørensen Sterbende Gärten
Danish National RSO / Leif Segerstam (Dacapo/Marco Polo) Amazon

7. Oliver Knussen Horn Concerto
Barry Tuckwell, London Sinfonietta / Oliver Knussen (DG) Amazon

8. Julian Anderson Khorovod
BBC SO, London Sinfonietta / Oliver Knussen (Ondine) Amazon

9. George Benjamin Sudden Time
George Benjamin (Nimbus) Amazon

10. Claude Vivier Orion
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln / Peter Rundel (Kairos) Amazon

This is the second in Gramophone's series of blogs by guest NMC artists - read Colin Matthews' blog

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