Music interview: Composer and clarinettist Mark Simpson on playing the Lammermuir Festival

Mark Simpson
Mark Simpson
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It was a bit more than a year ago – in May 2017 – that East Lothian’s Lammermuir Festival won the Royal Philharmonic Society award for best festival. Calling the prize classical music’s equivalent of an Oscar might be a bit crass, but it’s basically that – Britain’s most recognised honour for classical music, and an enormous achievement for an event founded as recently as 2010.

Since 2010, though, Lammermuir has been quietly establishing itself as one of Scotland’s most illuminating, rewarding and downright enjoyable classical events – with insightful, sometimes gently challenging programming, boundaries prodded and pushed, the East Lothian community involved, and exceptional artists invited to the region.

But why look back to what happened last year? Because 2018 is the first time we’re seeing the impact of the RPS award on the festival itself (the 2017 festival had already been announced by the time the prize was awarded). And that impact is clear: this year’s is a bigger festival than previously, more ambitious, wider-ranging and more confident than ever in its vision. Just look at a handful of its events: Scottish Opera’s first visit to Lammermuir, with Britten’s church parable The Burning Fiery Furnace; a song series featuring Claire Booth, Nicholas Mulroy and Anna Stéphany; return visits from the Danish Quartet, Marian Consort, and Magnus and Guy Johnston; two visiting Scottish orchestras – the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Scottish Chamber Orchestra – plus the Dunedin Consort, Hebrides Ensemble and Red Note Ensemble; and a new community opera from Matthew Rooke, drawing on the talents of the Dunbar area. It’s a Scottish festival success story, and something well worth celebrating.

Another returning visitor for 2018 is the Liverpool-born clarinettist and composer Mark Simpson, who made his Lammermuir debut back in 2014 playing Brahms and Mozart with the Danish Quartet. Simpson first made his mark as the winner of both BBC Young Musician and BBC Young Composer contests in 2006 – but, he says, he’s come a long way since then. “It was a life-changing moment,” he explains, “but I never let it define me. It was a real privilege, but I feel as though I’ve matured now and grown beyond that.”

He’s now in demand internationally as a clarinettist (this summer he’s made two appearances at the BBC Proms), and is currently composer in residence with Manchester’s BBC Philharmonic, for which he wrote his enormous oratorio The Immortal in 2015.

His music has a remarkable intensity – almost a relentless intensity at times – and he’s represented by three works at the 2018 festival. Nur Musik (“Only Music”), performed by Red Note on 19 September, belies its somewhat cool title with a frenzied battle between oboe and ensemble. “I was only 19 when I wrote it,” Simpson explains. “It represents the beginnings of my serious style, where my individual voice really started coming through.” Straw Dogs, in the same concert, is based on writings by the philosopher John Gray, and Geysir (performed by SCO Winds on 22 September) is an exuberant companion piece to Mozart’s Gran partita. “I was really struck by those big, fat chords at the start of the Mozart,” says Simpson, “so my piece also begins with some very resonant chords, but it goes in a different direction. It’s more of an explosion of sound – hence the title Geysir.”

As a clarinettist, he’s soloist in Nielsen’s quirky Clarinet Concerto with the SCO on the festival’s opening weekend, and later in John Adams’s mischievously witty Gnarly Buttons with the Red Note Ensemble. And, Simpson explains, the festival offers a rare opportunity for him to demonstrate both sides to his activities. “This is the first time I’ve done something on this scale as a clarinettist and composer – I’m really chuffed that people will be able to see me in both capacities.”

He’ll be around in East Lothian throughout the festival – what other plans does he have when not rehearsing and performing? “I’ll probably be working!” he says. With a clarinet concerto in the pipeline which he will premiere himself next year with the BBC Philharmonic, it sounds like Simpson might be too busy for sightseeing. “I’m going to be staying with people who have a piano and a music room, so I’ll be using those to get some things done.”

The Lammermuir Festival runs from 14 to 23 September, www.lammermuirfestival.co.uk