Artist in Focus: Michael Berkeley

9 April 2024

This week’s #RAArtistInFocus is composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley.

The son of Sir Lennox Berkeley and a godson of Benjamin Britten, Michael has been surrounded by music his whole life. Following musical training as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral and then at Royal Academy of Music, his more than 50-year career has seen major commissions for orchestras and opera houses and performances by artists such as André Previn, Sir Colin Davis and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Parallel to this, he is regularly heard as a broadcaster on BBC Radio 3, where his flagship programme Private Passions has been airing for nearly 30 years.

In recent years’ our #RAArtistInFocus Michael Berkeley has found a particularly rewarding strand or his work writing for choirs.

His 2013 work Listen, Listen, O My Child was commissioned for the Enthronement of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 2015 he wrote a Te Deum for Lincoln Cathedral to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and in 2017 Super Flumina Babylonis was premiered on St Cecilia’s Day for the combined choirs of Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral.

These three works have been recorded by the BBC Singers and will form part of a new disc of Michael’s music to be released later this year.

#RAArtistInFocus Michael Berkeley’s major orchestral scores include the 50 minute oratorio Or Shall we Die?

A collaboration with author Ian McEwan the work explores the capacity of the human race to destroy ourselves as a species, a message as relevant today as it was at the time.

Listen here on YouTube.

A tenure as Composer in Association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales led to three major works, following which he also composed his Violin Concerto for them in 2016. Premiered at the BBC Proms by Chloe Hanslip and Jac van Steen, the work is unusual in its use of electric and acoustic violins, and contains a part for tabla.

The FT said of the work that Berkeley “has a deep understanding of the tools at his disposal, and is not afraid to use them.”

#RAArtistInFocus Michael Berkeley's output includes three operas. His first, Baa Baa Black Sheep to a libretto by David Malouf, explores the childhood of Rudyard Kipling and was premiered at the Cheltenham Festival in 1993. A subsequent recording by Paul Daniel and Opera North is still available.

A second collaboration with David Malouf followed, this time Jane Eyre in 2000, and eventually For You to a new story and libretto by Ian McEwan which was toured by Music Theatre Wales in 2010 and subsequently released on Signum.

#RAArtistInFocus Michael Berkeley has always enjoyed writing instrumental works and three recent pieces will appear on the upcoming recording for Orchid Classics.

Haiku 1: Birds was written for pianist Clare Hammond. A series of short fragmentary pieces, the work depicts the movement – rather than the sound – of birds that Michael observed from his study in the Welsh Marches and was premiered in 2016.

Michael Berkeley was inspired by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani to follow this up with Haiku 2: Insects which was premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2020.

For his 75th birthday the Presteigne Festival commissioned Michael to write a trio for piano, viola and clarinet, the result of which was The Magnolia Tree which also features on the new disc.

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