Opera + Classical Music Features

The show must go on: Mark Simpson on composing in isolation

Lockdown hasn’t got everyone down. Benjamin Poore talks to composer Mark Simpson

Lockdown has been a disturbing time for musicians, financially and psychologically. Cancelled opportunities don’t just put musicians out of pocket in the medium-term, but send burgeoning careers off course, with a sinking realisation across the industry that things are unlikely to simply snap back to normality any time soon.

However, composer and clarinettist Mark Simpson is in good spirits, though acutely aware that his peers are feeling the pressure. Lockdown coincided with moving house – down to the seaside in (sometimes) sunny Folkestone – but also brought a loosening up of his creative energies. Life hasn’t changed that much for him, he tells me – though he is sad to miss out on performing the Nielsen clarinet concerto, a piece he’s played to great acclaim. Now his days are spent alone in his studio, where he “feels able to breathe” after something of a working blockage: lockdown, he says, has “opened up a bit of space” after an impasse.

Mark has already capitalised on this breakthrough. Just four weeks ago Elena Urioste and her husband Tom Poster performed Simpson’s An Essay of Love, streamed from their home via YouTube – everything, Mark notes, “from Disney medleys to Messiaen”. “I was really touched to see them both keep the spirit of performing alive in this absolutely terrible time for the arts”, he tells me, “and little did I know they had already started to think about asking some people to write for them.”

“Life hasn’t changed that much for him… though he is sad to miss out on performing the Nielsen clarinet concerto”

It’s a work Mark offered as a ‘belated wedding gift’ to friends he “has known for years”; he recently performed with their new chamber group Kaleidoscope. Elena and he met as BBC New Generation Artists, and Mark has been playing with Poster since Mark won BBC Young Musician of the Year: “I remember my first Quartet for the End of Time with him in the Two Moors Festival in 2007”.

An Essay of Love is compact – about five minutes long – but unleashes powerful amorous and virtuosic energies, not least in a tempestuous, impassioned middle section. It’s a work that seems to reflect the many tensions of the lockdown. Urioste’s fiddle unleashes the restive energies many musicians are channeling at this time, unable to meet their public in the flesh; for listeners it might speak to our fraying moods under confinement. But An Essay of Love’s mercurial complexions include reflection and tenderness too: Simpson catches the romantic and musical relationship at its heart though wistful echoes, passionate fits and starts, and playfully intimate gestures. Its introspection also channels weighty questions for musicians that come out of this crisis: what role does music have in our lives? How does it connect to us other people? 

Mark’s has started his next big project, slated for next summer, “with joy”: a new violin concerto, written for Nicola Benedetti and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. It’s still early days, but Mark has been listening keenly: “I’ve been looking at the scores of the concertos by Edward Elgar and Henri Dutilleux”; he finds the pacing and orchestration of the latter particularly enchanting. Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, he adds, is also a background influence.

Like Dutilleux, Simpson has a gift for what Andrew Clements called “long, achingly expressive melodic lines”. His own feelings of creative renewal are perhaps mirrored in Dutilleux’s unusual concerto, titled L’arbre des songesThe Tree of Dreams – a work cast in four movements and played without a break. It’s a concerto that shimmers and builds an organic sense of continuity in melody and texture; the titles of each movement – ‘Librement’, ‘Vif’, ‘Large et animé’ – suggest a springlike freshness and growth.

buy Mark Simpson MP3s or CDs
Spotify Mark Simpson on Spotify

More on Mark Simpson
The show must go on: Mark Simpson on composing in isolation