Last Saturday saw the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (of which I was once a member) take to the stage at the BBC Proms under the baton of Vasily Petrenko to perform an eclectic programme of Varèse, young American Nico Muhly, Messiaen and Anna Meredith, who was commissioned earlier in the year to write the piece to be performed as a part of the PRS’ New Music 20×12 scheme.
I ought to make clear that I was not at the concert – I was watching Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah perform their heroics on TV in the comfort of my own living room. A programme which was half Muhly and Meredith did not entice me to see it live. I have heard word that Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony was magnificently performed and I am certain to listen to the performance myself in due course. What I say below is based on listening to the Radio 3 broadcast on iPlayer.
Varèse’s Tuning Up was first on the programme – a novel idea to compose using sounds from an orchestra tuning up as material, with a quotes from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (which begins on the A used to tune the orchestra), Strauss’ Alpine Symphony and distinctly Varèsian sirens and snarling brass chords thrown in for good measure. An almost theatrical event as well as a statement that noise can be music, this was an entertaining opening but the seriousness of the work behind the surface humour was completely lost on both orchestra and conductor, as many extraneous elements including someone shouting out “come on, this isn’t a good time!” from the orchestra, the conductor shouting “sit down!” and added multiphonics from the oboist, destroyed the underlying message and such directions were almost certainly never intended, nor would have been approved by Varèse. I guessed that these “additions” were such, was proved right by listening to a few recordings of the piece afterwards (including one under new music specialist Peter Eötvös) and was left rather sickened that this was allowed to happen. Dear Mr. Petrenko – Varèse is not Cage (although even Cage would have provided clear enough guidelines for any theatrics if needed). Humour in music is a delicate issue – usually best conveyed by simply doing as the composer asks, rather than giving it a superficial hamming-up in performance.
Unfortunately I just got more irritated as the Radio broadcast went on (removing the Messiaen, which might have lightened my spirits). I have heard a few pieces by Nico Muhly now, including an Electric Violin Concerto commissioned for Manchester Camerata, more than enough to convince me that this is a composer who should never be commissioned again until he convinces us that he has anything to say at all. Diet-John Adams would not be an unfair description of him (indeed the orchestration is uncannily similar). The long linear spans that he writes in with simple block developmental processes could lead him to be bracketed as post-minimal. Unfortunately these processes never go anywhere – Steve Reich‘s manifesto of “Music as a Gradual Process” has become “Music as a Gradual Realisation That One Is Completely Wasting Their Time”. In this piece, Gait, the harmony is confused (modal harmony with “wrong notes” which never goes anywhere), the orchestration generic and unchanging (save for the last gasp effort of the woodblock introduction towards the end, which comes and goes just as quickly) and I find the idea of young aspiring musicians dedicating hours in a practice room to this “composer” utterly disgusting. No member of management should allow him air time, and his output pales in comparison to his influences (a reaquaintance with Ligeti’s Lontano and Reich’s Drumming would not be a bad start).
As I say, I am sure the performance of the Messiaen was brilliant. I don’t think there’s anything else I could say that would be productive – we know what the NYO are capable of. The last piece on the programme was Anna Meredith’s HandsFree (yes, one word – definitely ticks the trendy box), reviewed embarrassingly as “mesmerising” and “exhilarating” by the Times, “a tour de force” by the Guardian and (at least in keeping with the piece’s aesthetic) “wicked” by the Independent. I suppose it would be quite entertaining to get a whole orchestra to do a piece with just clapping and shouting – maybe the physical aspect of it would have been more appealing had I been there in person at the concert. Beyond this, however, a similar criticism to the Muhly applies. Long spans of material whose unpromising developments are terminated once the composer gets bored and moves on to something completely unrelated. A token bit of singing commences halfway through in a nod to Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna (without any of the intervallic or timbral development) which poor old Ligeti can do nothing about.
Perhaps it was very entertaining for some. I wasn’t entertained, but as I say, I wasn’t there and it sounded from the applause at the end as if the audience enjoyed it. What pieces the NYO should be playing and what the image of the NYO should be is for another debate (one that I remember being opened during my time in the orchestra as the directorship changed hands), but as for the music that was played on Saturday, Nico Muhly is precisely the sort of composer that would fall into the “crafty networker” category (c.f. last post), and there are many A level music students who could have written something just as effective as the Meredith, without wasting precious funding. It is more ridiculous that she is evidently held up as an icon for British cultural achievement with a 20×12 Cultural Olympiad commission. We can do better.
As hopefully the Messiaen showed, the NYO are capable of tackling absolutely anything and delivering masterful performances to rival any major symphony orchestra. They are more than just entertainment, more than a showpiece band used as a convenient token for “what young people can do” (I quote from the NYO website). I just hope that they are given an opportunity to dig their teeth into more serious repertoire (something that seems to be sparse in their programming in the past year) and if music is commissioned for them, it is, frankly, better.