There have been numerous BBC Proms commissions this year, more than I have been able to record, so I am endebted to 5:4 and his extraordinarily complete set of recordings of all new music from the festival on site, which I have used to inform this article. In contrast to his diligent approach of reviewing every piece of new music performed, I will simply give highlights (not least because my ground rules prevent me from giving my honest opinions on some of the pieces), restricting myself to BBC commissions.
Charlotte Bray‘s At the Speed of Stillness, performed by the Aldeburgh World Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder in Prom 21, and Helen Grime’s Night Songs, dedicated to the conductor Oliver Knussen who gave its première with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Prom 56 are uncanilly similar to the extent that I would not have been able to tell that they were written by different composers if presented with anonymous recordings. Both composers are clearly technically accomplished and in these pieces use linear cellular development with orchestration characterised by filigree upper-winds, low bass drones, soaring string melodies and harps, mallet percussion and string pizzicato peppering the musical surface.
A new 25-minute Commission from a high-profile UK composer such as James MacMillan deserves my input, although my experience of Credo, performed in Prom 33 by the BBC Philhamonic under Juanjo Mena with the Northern Sinfonia Chorus, was far less positive. For this piece, MacMillan deals in contrasts: tonality in its purest form versus atonality and free dissonance, and choral writing against orchestral elaboration. The first contrast provides an effective counterpoint for the first two minutes – we hear tonal chords pitted against chords which have no resemblance of tonality, tonal chords muddied by dissonance, high string writing which has no harmonic relation to tonal progressions which run under it: a thorough exploration of possible relationships between tonal progression and its polar opposite. However, this was to be the end of any idea of a coherent trajectory. Presenting contrasts adjacently and by superimposition becomes the (only) theme for the rest of the work, and one of the contrasts is almost always the choir in homophony at a slow tempo, which inhibits any attempt at an overall linear development. Such a development is threatened by the punctuated wind writing which enters a third of the way though, which becomes a signpost for the movement of harmony further afield, but this is always negated by the reintroduction of tonality from the choir. Even when a basic concept of polyphony for the choir is introduced towards the end (albeit as white-note modality with a basic common subdivision for the harmonic rhythm within: a cheap imitation of Renaissance polyphony), the template for juxtaposing two musical contrasts has by this point become so worn that the accompaniment of brass flutter-tonguing almost makes the overall texture predictable. Setting a long text such as a Credo is a musical challenge, but unfortunately this attempt by MacMillan did not sustain my interest.
I suspect that being asked to compose a short orchestral fanfare to blend in seamlessly with the spirit of the Last Night of the Proms would be most composers’ worst nightmares (Birtwistle famously threw caution to the wind with Panic, but this was in the second half and more extended). The composer runs the risk of the listener being able to play a comprehensive game of bingo with orchestral clichés. Mark Simpson (BBC Young Musician of the Year on clarinet and Young Composer of the Year 2006 amongst many other things), however, turned this problem on its head with Sparks, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jiří Bělohlávek: yes, we have bowed crotales, brass stabs, trombone glissandi, arpeggiated winds etc., but these gestures are extrapolated and combined economically in contrast to a busy musical surface and are supported by a convincing harmonic argument (itself successfully de-cliché-ing parallel triads and post-spectral chords by presenting them in a coherent structure) to great effect. Even the final swell of string harmonics, intended as an open-ended after-thought, is just another triad – shifted harmonically to present a contrast. A job very well done.
I feel a word on the body of new repertoire generated as a whole is necessary. Although this year has seen focusses on a bygone experimental composer in Cage and an old-school modernist in Boulez as well as a mouth-watering London Sinfonietta programme including Ligeti, Xenakis, Harvey and Andriessen and a chamber prom with challenging music from Ferneyhough and Finnissy, the commissions handed to younger composers has had a distinctly conservative bias. There certainly need not be any identification between the words “orchestral” and “conversative” as the Cage day, as well as performances of Cardew’s Bun No. 1, Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, Berio’s Sinfonia, Xenakis’ Aïs and Nomos Gamma which stick in the memory from recent years have shown, so why is this assumed of the younger generation? Are younger experimental composers not trusted with a symphony orchestra? I am not dismissing composers which could be described as conservative, as hopefully my feedback above has shown; I simply think that the list of commissioned young composers is not a fair representation of the stylistic diversity of new music today. To suggest that there are not more experimental younger composers who are worthy of a Proms commission is total nonsense. Admittedly, composers are not asked to write for specialist new music ensembles, but a notion of being “experimental” need not have anything to do with instrumental difficulty. I just hope that the list of composers given the opportunity to write for a major UK orchestra at the Proms has a more balanced feel in future.