Tuesday, 14 April 2009

New Music at the Proms 2009

The Proms aren't fossilized. They've always supported new music, introducing things that have turned out to be standard mainstream fare. The idea that anything new must automatically be suspect is a fairly recent concept. It wasn't always so. Conductors mix new with old so people can listen in an intelligent way. Nowadays unfortunately there are audiences who pride themselves on refusing to pay attention, to prove they "know" the "trick". It's not a trick, just sensible programming. Henry Wood would not have been amused by such "clever" folk. Fortunately, the Proms still respect his ideals of learning and listening.

Obviously, not all new music is particularly new conceptually or musically. That's fair enough. What we know now as basic repertoire is only the tiniest fraction of what was produced at any time. Naturally there's more dross than gold, but if we don't get a chance to hear, how are we ever going to know? There's a basic problem in that most of the best music around now is chamber music, quietist work that doesn't sound good in a cavern like the Royal Albert Hall, which favours big blasts of booming noise. One of the most horrible pieces I've ever heard was something of a hit a few years ago because it was big. It was described, by the composer, as similar to Beethoven 7th. Unfortunately it was followed by Beethoven 7th. Someone behind the programming had a brain!

In among the baroque, 19th century giants and solid early 20th century British composers this year are some intriguing prospects. Jonathan Harvey and James Macmillan fit in nicely with the wallpaper of semi-religious and choral music. Macmillan's pitted with Haydn no less.

For me one of the must gos is Prom 10 on 24 July, a concert of Takemitsu, Debussy, Hosokawa and Ravel. Akiko Suwanai, who so impressed last year in RVW, will be playing. Hosokawa's new piece incorporates Japanese instruments like the sho. It should be good, he's no pastichiste.
Another must go is Prom 18 on 29 July, Widmann's Con Brio. There was a Widmann series at the Wigmore Hall this year, which was well received. Jonathan Nott conducts the Bamberg Symphony, sensitive performers of new though not necessarily shocking new music.

August 4th will be another good day. The evening concert features a Heinz Hollinger premiere, and the late Prom Harrison Birtwistle classics like Silbury Air. David Atherton, makes a welcome return, conducting the London Sinfonietta, which he helped found decades ago. Birtwistle is Atherton territory. This Prom jumps out from the crowd so anyone interested in new music will have noticed. Those who only know Birtwistle from opera will have a blast on 14th August with the Second Act of The Mask of Orpheus.

Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies were the Brave New World of British music. It's good that the Proms celebrate Max's birthday on 8th September so nicely. The first concert sets the mood with Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. The late concert features the BBC Singers. Both Westerlings and Solstice of Light are to texts by the Scottish poet George Mackay Brown. These are both spectacular pieces and would have worked extremely well in the earlier concert, particularly as the massive organ will be used. When will the Proms get over the idea that late night "ghetto" slots are somehow less important ?

Also unmissable for me will be Detlev Glanert's Shoreless River, Prom 46 on 19th August. Glanert has been heard several times atv the Proms, his Theatrum Bestiarum being written specially for the RAH organ and acoustic. This new piece is part of a forthcoming opera, jointly commissioned by the BBC, WDR SO, NSO Washington and the Royal Concertegebouw Amsterdam. Glanert was one of Henze's few students, he's very good indeed. In March I heard his opera Caligula in Frankfurt (see link at labels list on right)

Another major highlight will be Louis Andriessen's De Staat. This is one of the major works of our time, still as relevant and powerful as it was when new. Again, it's late night on 28th August but it will be performed by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, who are very good indeed. They're also playing Steve Martland and Cornelis de Bondt, whom I don't know yet, but if an ensemble like this likes him he must be worth hearing.

George Crumb fans will find a way to get to Prom 66 on 4th September even if it's only on the radio. One of the pieces is Vox Balaenae where the flautist sings into his instrument, evoking the song of a whale. There'll also features on Michael Nyman, Philip Glass, Unsuk Chin, John Woolrich, Judith Weir. And of course Claude Vivier, Canada's greatest composer conducted by Charles Dutoit. This will be Orion, "an exploration of the echoing vastnesses of outer spoace" in 13 minutes!

Anyone dependent on public transport is disenfranchised from late night Proms which can end before the last train. It's a marketing thing – mass music, mass audience, though the Hall doesn't suddenly change size at night. But perhaps the Proms are gradually cottoning on that new music can fill houses if it's packaged right. Two high profile Proms this year feature composers who might not fit the image of mass appeal. On 2nd September, David Robertson includes two Xenakis pieces in the "main" evening concert. Audiences who come for Shostakovich shouldn't have any problem with Xenakis. His Nommos gamma is hugely dramatic - 98 players spread around the auditorium. A concert that has to be experienced live, well suited to Robertson's dynamic style.

The next evening, Jurowski is conducting the LPO in B A Zimmermann's Dialogues. Zimmermann is a significant composer : At the Philharmonie in Berlin they're doing a lot of his music including the seminal Requiem for a Young Poet. Catch the video broadcasts on the Berlin Philharmoniker website. If Zimmerman can sell in Berlin, London should take note.

No comments: