Benjamin Britten International Violin Competition (Michael Berkeley Interview)

Written by: Colin Anderson

Interview with Michael Berkeley about the Benjamin Britten International Violin Competition; he is a Patron of the Competition and has written a test piece.

A new competition for violinists is announced – named after Benjamin Britten, “an inspirational figure who was keen on helping young musicians. He understood string-writing wonderfully well. Not many people write as intuitively.” The words of Michael Berkeley, who has written a test piece for and is a Patron of the Britten Competition, a format that divides opinion. “It has been masterminded by musicians and by violinists, which is a good thing. We all tend to feel that music shouldn’t be competitive, but it’s a fact that it is – whether you’re applying for a job in an orchestra, or going to be a soloist, or whether your music is going to be performed or not. That’s life. I do think that they have informed this competition with musical values, which makes it important.”

Following the opening concert on Saturday 24 July, twenty-five hopefuls launch the competition on 25 July in Goodenough College, London WC1, which is “a delightful campus and a bit of a discovery.” Twelve violinists then give Second Round recitals, which includes just forty-eight hours to study Michael’s piece, Persistent Memory, so-called “because there’s a fragment from the middle movement of Debussy’s violin and piano sonata. Just as I was starting to write it, somebody chose the Debussy on Private Passions (Michael’s Radio 3 programme) and it stuck in my mind.”

Michael has approached his task with conviction. “I thought it would be nice for a violin competition to have a reference to one of the great works written for the instrument, which keeps trying to insinuate itself into the piece. I feel that a test piece should not just be about pyrotechnics but must be a satisfying musical experience, although I can assure you that they won’t find it wanting in technical challenges! But when I’ve sat on juries the thing that sorted the men from the boys for me was how people interpret music, the musicianship, what they have to say with the music.”

Persistent Memory is for violin and piano. “I wrote a solo piece, Funerals and Fandangos, for the Carl Flesch Competition and I thought it would be interesting to see what the violinists make of a new piece when they have to work with another musician.” There will be no consulting with the composer: “the whole point is to see what they make of it.”

The twenty-five violinists represent fifteen countries. There’s only one from the UK, which means “integrity is maintained; so if that’s the way it was, that’s the way it should be. The thing that does worry me is the sad state of affairs regarding music-tuition in schools, especially with the peripatetic teachers all gone. There are less people coming through; it’s something we should be worried about.”

All the rounds and their times can be found on the Competition’s website (the link below). The Final takes place in the Barbican Hall on 1 and 2 August, each of the four finalists playing two concertos, which must include Britten’s; and the winner plays there again on the 3rd, with the LSO and Andrew Davis.

Michael Berkeley muses that “there are an extraordinary number of people who can play just about anything on the violin; it’s what they do beyond that that marks them out as potentially great musicians. Young musicians do need these opportunities to establish themselves, and it’s marvellous that a lot of young players will be learning Britten’s concerto – just in case they have to play it in the Final!”

  • Britten Violin Competition
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 21 July and is reproduced here with permission

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content