Mark Simpson – A Young Musician Beyond The Stereotype
Mark Simpson, BBC Young Musician of the Year, may be only seventeen but his musical achievements are breathtaking. Performer, composer and general enthusiast for all things musical, Mark demonstrates yet again that musical talent cannot be stereotyped. As ever, it will find its own way forward.
It’s always good to hear about the successes of local young people; and the musician Mark Simpson‘s recent very good news couldn’t have happened to a nicer chap. We’ve known him for a few years now, as a young student clarinettist who plays in the annual HOTFOOT ‘community festival’ concert on Liverpool’s Hope Street, and as a frequent visitor to the Philharmonic Hall. He has a ready smile and he’s always willing just to get on making the music with everyone who wants to join him.
Imagine then how thrilled we were on 20 May, when Mark – to his surprise I suspect more than anyone else’s – was announced by Marin Alsop on live television as BBC Young Musician of the Year. Here was a young performer from Liverpool who has grown up just like many other youngsters in the city, attending a local state school (King David’s High, which nonetheless does offer a particular emphasis on music) and studying with local teachers – including of course Nicholas Cox, who is Principal Clarinet with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as a tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music.
Not content with his performance triumph, Mark has also recently gained attention as a genuinely talented composer, as one of the winners of the 2006 Guardian / BBC Proms Young Composers competition. Unsurprisingly, one of the ensembles he writes for is 10/10, the RLPO new music group led by his tutor, Nick Cox.
Here we have a blazing new talent, an ‘ordinary’ young person who has taken himself far away from the ordinary, raring to go on new works (he even wrote his own piece to perform in the semi-final of the BBC Young Musician contest) and enthusiastic for anything his musical future can throw at him: ‘I’m not just a clarinettist. I’m a composer. I want to conduct. I want to write about music. I want to start orchestras…..’ Wonderful, and no doubt in Mark’s case achievable, ambitions for a cheery seventeen year old.
Where is ‘classical’ music taking us?
Mark has something else to add however. He says, ‘It annoys me so much that classical music is pigeonholed as something aristcratic and uptight, snobby and above itself. Ultimately things will have to change, because once the current group of concertgoers are dead, no one will be listening.’
Hopefully in this he hits the spot less accurately. Mark’s music and enthusiasm is patent; one would like to think it’s catching. His concerns however are not entirely new. Great orchestras such as the RLPO have always had their share of young aspirant players, including numbers from the most ‘ordinary’ backgrounds imaginable. Some of these people have had to fight every inch of the way to achieve their ambition to become fine performers; and some despair of the fuddy-duddy, class-ridden ways of much ‘classical’ music. Often they are right to feel like this. Sometimes they leave and go off to alternative careers or to other areas of music because of it.
Many of the best musicians however, take the course which Mark has so far chosen – they appreciate for what it is the truly amazing opportunity, the ‘licence’, which their instrumental talent gives them to perform the great works of the classical orchestral repertoire (Mark is also a member of the National Youth Orchestra); and at the same time they seek other ways also to explore their gift.
Some ‘classical’ musicians compose, some teach, some create their own small ensembles and play music of their personal choosing across and within many genres, classical, western-european and otherwise. And in all these activities musicians of the highest calibre can reach their various audiences, nurturing young people into music as school children, coaching them as students, performing in community and local venues for those too busy, restricted, shy or elderly to attend the great concert halls – and then still demonstrating, in full-scale symphonic performances to all who want to hear and feel it, the might of a great ‘classical’ orchestra in its entirety.
A great history and a challenging future
In all these activities the life of a professional classical musician is not that different from his or her predecessors at any time from about Joseph Haydn or Mozart on, a quarter of a millennium ago.
One of the gifts of a classical training, wherever it takes you, is that it provides a rigour and capacity to learn, construct, and in turn to teach. The challenge for classical musicians in our own times is to adapt this capability in such a way as to capture the imagination of potential audiences, and to ‘engage’ people who demand an instant response and are often not prepared to tolerate things just because that’s how they have been in the past.
The contexts are new, but in some ways it was ever thus. Music is not an easy profession. But talents such as Mark Simpson’s, nurtured by outstanding artists like Nicholas Cox, make me hopeful that the future is in fact very bright.
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