Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Mark Simpson/Michael Tippett

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Mark Simpson/Michael Tippett

Article excerpt

The opening of Mark Simpson's new Cello Concerto is pure Hollywood. A fanfare in the low brass, an upwards rush and suddenly the screen floods with lush orchestral sound -- as confident in its onward sweep as Star Wars or 'Tara's Theme'. Waiting, poised, in the middle of it all was the soloist Leonard Elschenbroich, for whom Simpson has said that he wanted to write a concerto that celebrated the cello's 'expressive and lyrical force'. He has, too. From the instant Elschenbroich entered, it felt right. The cello soared over a chiming marimba, like in Walton's Cello Concerto. It lingered over its farewells, like in Elgar's. And it rocketed headfirst into the orchestra, like the bit in Dvorak's concerto where, in The Witches of Eastwick, Susan Sarandon's cello bursts into flames.

Who could resist all that? Some of the concerto's impact comes from Simpson's decision to cast it in a traditional three-movement layout. It's also rare to hear a new concerto that sets a soloist so thrillingly against full orchestra. Yet as Sir Michael Tippett once said, 'The general public still lives for the Orchestra with a capital O'. There's nothing intrinsically conservative in acknowledging that truth, any more than Simpson's quotes and allusions detract from, rather than define, his own voice. Tippett wrote eloquently about the communicative power of musical archetypes -- forms and gestures that come preloaded with meaning. Perhaps it's a northern thing, but the Liverpudlian Simpson instinctively grasps that for a big night out it's not about the brands you're wearing but the flair with which you carry them off.

And to be fair, he's always had a magpie tendency. In 2008 he made his orchestral debut with Threads, a dazzlingly scored blowout that sounded like a kid on a sugar rush: in other words, exactly what you'd hope for from a brilliantly gifted 19-year old who'd just been handed the keys to the National Youth Orchestra. He hasn't yet lost that bigness, that boldness, or that sense that he simply loves the sound it all makes. So much British contemporary music shivers with East Anglian damp. But place Simpson's music into the middle of a Saturday night in central Manchester and it grabs you by the shoulders. His 2016 nightclub opera Pleasure found a musical language of sticky floors and pulsing neon and charged it with the lyrical, dramatic impulse of a Monteverdi.

This Cello Concerto is having it just as large. …

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