Michael Berkeley: 75th birthday celebrated
The Elgar festival in Worcester and Malvern celebrates the 75th birthday of composer Michael Berkeley with four concerts featuring his music in May and June, embracing orchestral and chamber works.
Michael Berkeley’s music published by Oxford University Press is promoted here under license by Boosey & Hawkes.
The 75th birthday of Michael Berkeley falls on 29 May and over the following week he will be attending a composer feature at the Elgar for Everyone Festival in the Worcester and Malvern area (30 May - 4 June). The English Symphony Orchestra performs three of his works, with Kenneth Woods on the rostrum, complemented with a chamber music concert, talks and masterclasses. Further Berkeley festival events around the birthday month take place in London, Aldeburgh, Hay-on-Wye and Ludlow.
Central to the Elgar festival is Berkeley’s Meditations for strings, performed by the English Symphony Orchestra in a concert on 2 June at Worcester Guildhall, and included in a pair of conducting masterclasses at the Elgar School of Music in Worcester on 30 May and 31 May. Composed at the beginning of 1975, Meditations was Michael Berkeley's first acknowledged orchestral work and led him, a late developer as a composer, to undertake post graduate studies with Richard Rodney Bennett. The composer describes how “the piece is called Meditations because its atmosphere is essentially contemplative, though the nature of the subject is far from being continuously passive. Another reason for the title is the inspiration behind the thematic material - though the actual melodies are original, they use rhythmic and melodic patterns suggested by Gregorian chant which I sang every day as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral.”
The English Symphony Orchestra programme on 1 June at Great Malvern Priory includes Berkeley’s Suite: The Vision of Piers the Ploughman, his musical response to the epic Middle English allegorical poem, written by William Langland in the late 14th century and set in the Malvern Hills. Originally commissioned by the BBC for a 13-part adaptation, the music was first broadcast on Radio 3 during Lent and Easter in 1980. The composer describes how in the first of three movements, "Strife, a brief statement of the main theme leads directly into the music describing the call to arms and the subsequent mayhem. There is here a reference to my Symphony in one movement, Uprising, which I was writing at the same time. Next comes the music for the actual Vision, so this creates a predominantly dreamy atmosphere. Since the words ran under the music at this point, I tried to suspend rich sounding harmonies in mid-air. The final movement of the Suite gives Piers' Theme full rein. It was inspired by the solemn splendour of Langland's glorious words."
In a pre-concert chat, poet Peter Sutton talks about the story of Piers Plowman and reads excerpts from his acclaimed translation of the work. A lunchtime event the following day sees Michael Berkeley in conversation at The Firs in Lower Broadheath, Elgar’s birthplace near Worcester.
Michael Berkeley’s Secret Garden, performed by the English Symphony Orchestra on 3 June in Worcester Cathedral, was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and Oxford University Press and was premiered and toured in 1997 by the LSO under Colin Davis. The composer notes how Secret Garden is one of a group of pieces which “explore facets of the imagination, that garden in the mind that so thrills and alarms but, alone amongst the workings of human beings, can never be completely conquered or stolen by another… There is a bitter sweet atmosphere in the garden, a faint suggestion of melancholy. Here is found what has so far only been imagined but delight is tinged with fear, excitement.”
> Elgar for Everyone Festival
> English Symphony Orchestra
About Michael Berkeley
Composer Michael Berkeley was born in 1948, the eldest son of the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley and a godson of Benjamin Britten. As a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, singing naturally played an important part in his early education.
He studied composition, singing and piano at the Royal Academy of Music but it was not until his late twenties, when he went to study with Richard Rodney Bennett, that Berkeley began to concentrate exclusively on composing. In 1977 he was awarded the Guinness Prize for Composition; two years later he was appointed Associate Composer to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Since then, his music has been played all over the globe and by some of the world’s finest musicians.
Major works include the oratorio Or Shall We Die? (1982) to a text specially written by Ian McEwan, the powerful and expressionist Clarinet Concerto (1991) for Emma Johnson and three operas: Baa Baa Black Sheep (1993), based on the childhood of Rudyard Kipling, and Jane Eyre (2000), both with libretti by David Malouf, and For You (2008), to a libretto by Ian McEwan. Recent scores include a Violin Concerto (2016) written for Chloe Hanslip.
From 1995 to 2005 he was artistic director of the Cheltenham International Festival of Music, where he premiered over a hundred new works and initiated a policy of having a contemporary work in every programme. He currently presents BBC Radio 3's Private Passions and he is Chairman of the Governors of The Royal Ballet.
In 2013 he was appointed a non-party political member of the House of Lords as Lord Berkeley of Knighton, CBE. He speaks as a passionate advocate for the arts, contemporary music and music education.
> Michael Berkeley at OUP
> Michael Berkeley website
Poto: credit BBC