KCO Concert in November 2006
|Poulenc orch. Berkeley||Flute Sonata (soloist Andrew Nicholson)|
|Kodaly||Dances of Galanta|
|Robert Simpson||Symphony No 2|
|Meyers||Encore Une Fois (first UK performance)|
Writing in The Independent on Simpson's death in November 1997, the critic and publisher Martin Anderson said, "Robert Simpson was arguably one of Britain's most important composers since Vaughan Williams; he was certainly one of the 20th century's most powerful and original symphonic composers anywhere."
Simpson was born in Leamington Spa in 1921, son of an English father and Dutch mother. His Dutch grandparents had been medical missionaries and his parents intended him to take up medicine also, but music became the stronger calling in his life. From 1942 to 1944 he studied under Herbert Howells in London and took his Dmus at Durham in 1951, presenting his First Symphony (in truth, the fifth he had composed; he had rejected the first four) for the occasion.
His first public activities were with the Exploratory Concert Society, which he founded along with Donald Mitchell and Harold Truscott, and where he would present music by composers he felt were undeservedly neglected. In 1952 he joined the BBC as a producer and spent the next 28 years becoming one of Britain's best-known broadcasters, his low, gravelly voice articulating penetrating insights into the music of the composers he most admired: Bach, Sibelius, Nielsen, Bruckner and, above all, his beloved Beethoven.
He was a man of very firm views: a lifelong socialist and pacifist, and having joined the BBC at the heyday of the Third Programme, he was appalled at the degeneration of its standards. The breaking point came in 1980 when the BBC attempted to make cuts in its orchestral resources, causing the musicians' union boycott of BBC work that summer. Simpson resigned his position.
Simpson completed 11 symphonies, 15 string quartets, concertos for violin, piano, flute and cello, a good number of other chamber pieces, a substantial corpus of works for brass band, two choral compositions and a handful of nonetheless sizeable pieces for piano and organ.
Edmund Rubbra, another composer whose works, like Simpson's, were marginalised by the modernist orthodoxy in the 1950s-1970s, commented on Simpson' s music:
...it is rugged and uncompromising but intensely logical in its thoughts and if there are more than occasional echoes of Nielsen in it, both in the scoring and the actual music, it is an influence that has been so absorbed and transmuted that one is aware of an attitude rather than another personality.
Recordings of all of Simpson's symphonies and string quartets are available on the Hyperion label. There is a Robert Simpson Society, formed in l980, details of which can be obtaincd from Terry Hazell, 5 Sispara Gardens, Southfields, SWl8 1LG.
The following review of the concert was written for the Surrey Comet by Jim Addington.
Last Saturday's concert exceeded even some of their recent excellent performances, encompassing works by Beethoven, Francis Poulenc and Kodaly, a much under-played English composer, Robert Simpson, and a final evocative piece by Andy Meyers which brought the concert to a close.
The playing of such a wide range and variety of pieces was a daunting task but the orchestra proved equal to the challenge. Beginning with Beethoven's 'Egmont' overture their performance was stirring, almost rumbustious, aided by the venue's fine acoustics. Next was Poulenc's Flute Concerto. This was orchestrated from his Flute Sonata by Lennox Berkeley, a fine gift to music-lovers. The soloist was Andrew Nicholson who gave a sparkling and fluent performance. Andrew is principal flute of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, following an earlier appointment as principal of the Halle. While still a student he played a concerto with the London Mozart Players and is now a frequent guest soloist with many orchestra including London Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia, and the Academy of St.Martin's-in-the-Fields.
The adaptation complemented Poulenc's style extremely well. It begins with a plaintive theme which soon changes to some fine melodies. It is a reflective work. The final movement is fast and lively with dramatic changes of pace, and ends with with a flourish.
Kodaly's 'Galanta' Hungarian gypsy dances followed, introduced with glowing clarinet performance by Stephen Willis. These passionate and poignant dances emanated from the gypsy bands which were a part of life a hundred years ago in the region between Budapest and Vienna. The very lively music got our feet moving.
The daring main work was Robert Simpson's Symphony No.2. He has been described as "arguably one of Britain's most important composers since Vaughan Williams" and was one of the 20th century's most powerful and original symphonic composers. It is sad that in Britain overseas composers are often supported before our home-grown musicians. The decision to include the symphony was fully justified by the performance of a work which is evocative of those by Shostakovich, although also owing something in structure to Beethoven. A palidromic section begins and ends with gorgeous viola themes. We can be sure that Robert Simpson's music will come to be accepted as part of the British musical heritage in years to come.
Conductor Andy Meyers' works are a feature of many of the orchestra's concerts. This time he produced a short piece entitled 'Encore Une Fois' from the Latin/American big band genre. Its title suggests that that this light hearted piece is intended as an encore and it has an infectious melody that is repeated in many versions. This was the final piece also played in last months' concert given in Lille to an enthusiastic audience.