Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Leonard Elschenbroich, cello / BBC Philharmonic / Clemens Schuldt
The idea for writing a concerto for cello and orchestra came in 2014 after the premiere of my orchestral piece Israfel. Coming away from that concert I was left with the wish to compose a work with a single melodic voice accompanied by an orchestra where the sense of line was never lost. As a clarinettist and fellow BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist at the time, I became friends with Leonard through performing chamber music together. I was taken by his power to communicate an intense depth of expression through his playing – this fitted nicely with my creative urge to write something which explored a powerful lyrical melody. After I was appointed Composer in Association with BBC Philharmonic in 2015 they asked me what kind of piece I’d like to compose for the first part of my residency – writing a concerto for Leonard seemed like an obvious and very natural choice.
In writing for the cello I wanted to explore the pitch content and the lyrical nature of the instrument rather than relying on overly virtuosic techniques and effects. Exploring the searing expressive and lyrical force of the instrument was what interested me most. Leonard requested there be some contrasting purely orchestral sections – I relished the chance to write many tutti passages for the orchestra as well as material for cello alone.
Although the work is played continuously without a break the signposts for the three movements are clear. The first movement dissolves to a moment of suspension, leading into the lament of the second movement which further explores the mood of the Lachrymosa section of my 2015 oratorio The Immortal – with no wind or brass the multi-divided strings create an eerie, veiled soundworld. The start of the third movement is an explosion of rhythms and movement, gathering its dancing momentum and hurtling us to the end of the work.
Leonard and I spent a significant amount of time discussing what kind of writing he likes and dislikes, and his ideas about the form of the concerto. We spoke about how moments of solo playing could connect with the audience and how it can, albeit rarely, shift a piece or performance into a different spiritual realm. This was my aim with the cadenza in the last movement – to create a moment of reflection and a chance for Leonard to connect in a different, more intimate way with the audience. This will hopefully balance the searing lyricism of the first movement where the soloist drives the music forward, flying above the orchestra, and the more dramatic, intense expressive nature of the second movement. In other places we worked more closely together in trying to tailor specific passages to his playing – the mini-cadenzas in the second movement demonstrate his incredible ability as a virtuoso.
My Cello Concerto is dedicated to Cathy Nelson.
Programme note © Mark Simpson 2018
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer.
"Mark Simpson's Cello Concerto is totally original. The premiere confirmed him as one of the UK's most exciting young talents... It plays continuously but clearly falls into a fast-slow-fast scheme, which pivots about the anguished lament that the cello sings over a web of divided strings at its centre... It is both immediately compelling and mysterious at the same time, for Simpson has the precious knack of making relatively conventional gestures seem totally original and he uses a fundamentally tonal language in an utterly distinctive, never derivative way, so that nothing is ever quite what it seems."
"...music airborne, kaleidoscopic, swirling with life... this a contemporary piece with a pulsing heart and I found it irresistible".