Although the concerto repertoire for clarinet is broad, promoters often play it safe by programming Mozart’s perennial favourite, or perhaps Weber or Nielsen if they’re being daring. The Philharmonia is striking out though, commissioning a new concerto by Joseph Phibbs written for its principal clarinettist, Mark van de Wiel, which premieres in Basingstoke and London next week. We caught up with composer and soloist.

Joseph Phibbs
Joseph Phibbs

How did this concerto come about?

JP: In 2014, David Whelton, the Philharmonia’s then Managing Director, suggested to Mark the idea of commissioning a full-length Clarinet Concerto. I was thrilled and incredibly touched when Mark approached me to write the work, and accepted at once, with Mark coming in as the work’s main co-commissioner. Malmö Live Konserthus subsequently joined the commission, at the suggestion of their Head of Programming, Per Hedberg. Ideas started to form very soon after the work was suggested, though the bulk of the composing was done between the summer of last year and this year.

Mark, what are the challenges that Joseph has set you?

MvdW: Joe’s new concerto is an amazing and bold response to this commission, with inventive writing for the orchestra and myself. It uses few extended techniques but is highly challenging. I asked for a real virtuoso concerto. I also mentioned to Joe that I’d noticed that much of his music I’d played was mainly slow but with fast sections, and that I’d like this concerto to be the other way around. I got my wish on both counts!

Can you describe the element of collaboration between you?

JP: The clarinet is one of my favourite instruments. I wrote a concertino for clarinet, strings, and harp for Sarah Williamson and The Orchestra of the Swan in 2009. This new work is longer and more virtuosic, and on an expressive level more unsettled and ambiguous. My recent large-scale orchestral works all feature clarinet solos of varying lengths. It was with Mark in mind that I wrote an interlude for clarinet and strings as part of Rivers to the Sea, an orchestral work written for the Philharmonia/Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2012.

Mark made two requests at the outset: that he’d ideally like a mostly fast piece, and one which was a genuine concerto in the sense that the clarinet is the true protagonist. This piece was composed during a difficult time, and Mark was very sensitive about simply letting me get on with the writing of it, and – crucially – always positive and encouraging about what I sent.

MvdW: Once the completed score had arrived, I began working on it. As I got to know the piece and formed an idea of how I should play it, I came up with a number of suggestions concerning articulation (in particular adding more tonguing), tempo (for example the slow sections are now a little slower than originally marked), and in a very few places the notes, in order to gain sonority. In fact we recently agreed to omit a few bars towards the end of the cadenza in order to tighten up the structure, something which only became apparent once I’d learnt to play the cadenza and understood its pacing. Unfortunately the few omitted bars are not one of the most difficult passages!

JP: What’s been gratifying for me is that all Mark’s suggestions following the work’s completion have shown an extraordinary understanding of what I was striving for and his immediate grasp of the work’s expressive intentions has been very exciting to witness.

Are there any particular qualities of Mark’s playing which you wanted to feature?

JP: I’ve known Mark’s playing since 1998, mostly in his capacity as Principal Clarinet in both the London Sinfonietta and Philharmonia, and we’ve become close friends over the years. I’ve always had great admiration for his playing and, given the breadth of repertoire he performs, from Mozart through to contemporary works, decided to write a work which would demonstrate the different expressive facets of his playing, as well as his technical brilliance. In addition to the sheer beauty of sound he produces, it was his versatility I aimed to explore in this work.

Mark, which are the most challenging concertos currently in your repertoire?

Mark van de Wiel © Philharmonia
Mark van de Wiel
© Philharmonia

MvdW: The Nielsen is always a huge musical and technical challenge - when I was a student it was always regarded as the Mount Everest of the clarinet repertoire. Contemporary repertoire is often challenging either because of extreme speed, range or special techniques. Elliott Carter’s Concerto was challenging largely because of speed of notes, and other particular challenges have included Enno Poppe’s Holz, with rapid quarter tone writing, and Boulez’s Domaines requiring many advanced techniques and a clear idea of the route through the piece. Naturally one of the challenges of playing a new work is that one is starting from scratch, with no previous performances or recordings as reference. But I must say, if the Mozart concerto is played – as it should be – on the basset clarinet, the immense musical demands of this music combined with the challenges of playing it on the heavier, more complicated and less familiar instrument still make it one of the most challenging concertos of all.

Joe, do you see the concerto form as a traditional tussle between soloist and orchestra? Or something more collaborative?

JP: For me the form represents an individual placed among a multitude, the latter here often taking the form of environments through which the soloist moves. For example, the closing passacaglia is inspired by its literal meaning of “street walk”, the clarinet deftly navigating through a variety of shifting orchestral textures, all underpinned by a insistent repeated bass line. The orchestra usually functions on three levels: supporting the soloist (e.g. the soft chords in both the opening and slow movement); conversing with the soloist (producing a type of dialogue); and elsewhere opposing the soloist (contradicting – or even threatening to overwhelm – it).

What does it take for a concerto to become accepted as a repertoire piece? Is it when other soloists take it on?

MvdW: We’re very lucky to have five performances (and a recording) lined up already. The world and London premières in Basingstoke and London with Edward Gardner and the Philharmonia will be followed two weeks later by the first performance with a non-professional orchestra, with the Oxford Symphony Orchestra and Robert Max, then by two performances In Malmö in 2019.

It’s certainly true that more clarinettists taking on a piece can help it to become established in the repertoire, but even more so when orchestras and halls are keen to programme it. It can be challenging to persuade a promoter to programme a classical concerto such as Weber or Spohr instead of the Mozart, which is why I’m so grateful to the Philharmonia for programming several performances of the Finzi, the Nielsen (including a recording) and now for jointly commissioning this terrific new concerto from Joe, which I hope will receive many performances. It’s enormously enterprising of Robert Max and the OSO to take on this challenging piece.

Incidentally, one of the most successful recent clarinet concertos is the superb concerto by Magnus Lindberg. Robert and the OSO were at one point deciding between programming the Phibbs, or the Lindberg. I’m very glad they went for the Phibbs, or I’d have been learning both concertos at the same time!

Click here to purchase tickets for the Basingstoke or London performances. 

The London première will be recorded for BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast on Radio 3 in Concert on 28 November.


Article sponsored by the Philharmonia Orchestra