On 4 and 5 November, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Principal Clarinet Mark van de Wiel perform the premiere of a new Clarinet Concerto by British composer Joseph Phibbs, in concerts in Basingstoke and London conducted by Edward Gardner.
In this article, Joseph Phibbs introduces the piece and explores the influences that shaped the concerto.
This 24 minute work is the result of a long and creative friendship with Mark van de Wiel, whose extraordinary expressive and technical scope – ranging from standard classical repertoire to the most demanding contemporary works – in large part shaped the work’s form and character.
Comprising four movements, the work opens with a slow introduction, the unfolding of the clarinet’s opening theme supported by soft, sustained strings. A type of rondo emerges, signalled by a soft pizzicato ostinato in the lower stings over which the clarinet’s earlier theme is transformed into a solitary, blues-inspired refrain. The mood here is urban, snatches of dance rhythms accompanying the soloist’s ever-expanding melodic gestures, while elsewhere a myriad of orchestral figuration (first in the woodwind, and later the strings) is suggestive of city lights.
A more lyrical theme appears towards the end of the movement, before giving way to a fast coda. A cadenza serves as a bridge to the second movement, a fast and unsettled type of nocturne-fantasy whose principal thematic material is defined by a short recurring scalic figure in the clarinet which expands and transforms as the movement progresses. A number of contrasting episodes allude to various non-classical traditions to which the clarinet is often linked, including Eastern European folk music, before the movement closes abruptly.
The third movement, a slow and at times mournful vocalise, is reminiscent of the work’s opening by way of its pared-down orchestral scoring, and features a simple repeated harmonic pattern over which the soloist ‘sings’ in an often impassioned and at times strident manner.
Following without a break, the fourth movement harks back to the urban-inspired world of the first, though here with greater abandon. Ever denser, rising chords in the orchestra punctuate florid gestures in the clarinet, before leading to a faster coda. A syncopated passacaglia emerges, inspired by its literal meaning (‘street walk’), the soloist’s at times wild, quasi-improvisatory lines weaving through a constantly shifting orchestral backdrop, underpinned by the repeated bass line which characterises this form. This in turn accelerates towards the end of the movement to form a faster ‘walking bass’, before a final ascending flourish brings the work to a close.
My thanks to Mark, the work’s dedicatee; the Philharmonia, at the suggestion of former Managing Director David Whelton; and Malmö Live Konserthus, at the suggestion of Per Hedberg, Head of Programming, for their generous support.
© Joseph Phibbs
Commissioned by Mark van de Wiel, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Malmö Live Konserthus.
Film: Watch Phibbs introduce his previous Philharmonia commission, Rivers to the Sea, winner of the orchestral category of the 2013 British Composer Awards.