It’s back! This afternoon (at precisely 2pm, following a brief period of something not entirely unlike hype) the Proms 2014 season was revealed. Having pored over the details, what it promises in the way of new music is characterised as much by safety as it is by generosity. Discounting the concessions to jazz and pop as well as the sextet of ‘London premières’—not premières in any meaningful sense of the word—there are 22 works hitherto unheard on these shores, nine of which are first performances. But overall, it has to be said some of the choices demonstrate strikingly narrow-minded thinking, including many composers whose work has been featured at the Proms numerous times already. Furthermore, the durations afforded to new music are noticeably shorter than in recent seasons; no contemporary piece this year will ask more than half an hour of your time.
Yet while it’s not exactly burgeoning with ingenuity or courage, there are plenty of highlights worth getting excited about. Simon Holt‘s music consistently shakes up proceedings in the best possible way, and the prospect of a brace of recent pieces by Jörg Widmann is particularly mouth-watering. A substantial new work from Luca Francesconi may well polarise audiences, while Benedict Mason could well leave them entirely bewildered (i sincerely hope so). There’s also a number of composers with whom UK audiences are likely to be unfamiliar—including Ayal Adler, Qigang Chen, Behzad Ranjbaran, Jukka Tiensuu and Haukur Tómasson—so there are many happy opportunities to be taken completely by surprise. One’s less likely to experience that emotion in the new works from John Adams, Jonathan Dove and John Tavener, although in the case of Tavener one can never quite tell in advance whether it’s one’s limits of ecstasy or nausea that will be tested, so that in itself will make for an interesting encounter.
The season pays special attention to Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, celebrating their respective 80th birthdays; Birtwistle fans will be treated to over two hours of his music, while Max addicts can revel in no fewer than 200 minutes of concert time. Other highlights include Unsuk Chin‘s sheng concerto Šu (a highly accessible point of entry for those unfamiliar with her music), and Luciano Berio‘s superb schizoid classic Sinfonia. Turning away from new music for a moment, other festival high points include a concert performance of Richard Strauss‘ opera Elektra, Scriabin‘s Prometheus and Shostakovich‘s Fourth Symphony, three works that in quite different ways push music—and audiences—way beyond their usual limits; contemporary music lovers will find much to enjoy in all of them. Returning to new music again, those who prefer easy listening have an evening of Steve Reich to satisfy their sweet-toothed palates.
Not by any means the most exhilarating or nonconformist of festival seasons, then, but the significant number of ‘known unknowns’ mean that there’s room for optimism, and even a bit of celebration. The season kicks off on 18 July; full details can be found at the Proms website, and there’s the usual accompanying Proms guide (available in both physical and digital editions). Below is a summary of the new works; as ever, the World, European and UK premières will all be scrutinised here on 5:4.
- John Adams – Saxophone Concerto (UK Première)
- Ayal Adler – Resonating Sounds (UK Première)
- Sally Beamish – Violin Concerto (London Première)
- Barrie Bignold – Around Sound (World Première)
- Qigang Chen – Joie éternelle (UK Première)
- Peter Maxwell Davies – Concert Overture ‘Ebb of Winter’ (London Première)
- Jonathan Dove – Gaia (World Première)
- Luca Francesconi – Duende – The Dark Notes (UK Première)
- Helen Grime – Near Midnight (London Première)
- Gavin Higgins – Velocity (World Première)
- Simon Holt – Morpheus Wakes (World Première)
- David Horne – Daedalus in Flight (London Première)
- Benedict Mason – Meld (World Première)
- William Mathias – Violin Concerto (London Première)
- John McLeod – The Sun Dances (London Première)
- Roxanna Panufnik – Three Paths to Peace (European Première)
- Gabriel Prokofiev – Violin Concerto (World Première)
- Bernard Rands – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (UK Première)
- Behzad Ranjbaran – Seemorgh – The Sunrise (European Première)
- Kareem Roustom – Ramal (UK Première)
- John Tavener – Gnosis (World Première)
- John Tavener – Requiem Fragments (World Première)
- Jukka Tiensuu – Voice verser (UK Première)
- Haukur Tómasson – Magma (UK Première)
- Judith Weir – Day Break Shadows Flee (World Première)
- Jörg Widmann – Flûte en suite (UK Première)
- Jörg Widmann – Teufel Amor (UK Première)
- Zhou Long – Postures (European Première)