A contemporary composer whose interests are wide-ranging, Michael Berkeley has gained a reputation for works that appeal to both emotion and intellect. The eldest son of composer Lennox Berkeley, he has moved from a comfortably tonal style in his earliest works to an edgier, more compact idiom. In 1993 his opera Ba Ba Black Sheep was a resounding critical and popular success at the Cheltenham Festival. Benefiting from a position as composer-in-association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, he composed works that resonated with a sizeable audience. As a chorister of Westminster Cathedral, Berkeley received a solid grounding in music. Further lessons from Benjamin Britten, his godfather, confirmed his interest in the field, though he did not initially concentrate on composition while attending the Royal Academy of Music. Only later, when studying with Richard Rodney Bennett, did he decide to devote himself to the writing of music.
With early compositions such as Meditations (1975), the Oboe Concerto (1977), and the Fantasia Concertante and String Trio (1978), a certain conventionality was evident. Upon introduction of his 1983 oratorio Or Shall We Die?, a decided musical personality had formed. Thereafter, Berkeley's works had a distinctive quality, taut, clear-minded, and emotionally compelling, comprehensive yet well distilled. Critical attention given two works for strings, Gethsemani Fragment and Coronach, led to commissions from such groups as the Vanbrugh String Quartet (Magnetic Fields) and the Nash Ensemble (Winter Fragments).
Berkeley's The Secret Garden was given its first performance by Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1998, meeting with enormous enthusiasm from the audience. In 2000, a second opera, Jane Eyre, was premiered at the Cheltenham Festival by the Music Theatre Wales company; it was subsequently toured in Britain. In 2003, performances of Berkeley's music were heard in New York (the premiere of his Chamber Symphony) and Sidney, Australia (Entertaining Master Punch and Odd Man Out). Other premieres included Abstract Mirror, written for the Chilingirian String Quartet; Gethsemane -- A Sacred Scena for ensemble with tenor soloist; and Tristessa, a work written through his association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Several of Berkeley's works have been recorded on the Chandos label.