Proms 2017: Lotta Wennäkoski – Flounce (World Première)

After eight weeks of (for the most part) serious music-making, the Last Night of the Proms, quite reasonably, is primarily disposed to the aim of letting of steam and just having fun. For the contemporary composer chosen to get the evening going each year, the enormous sense of occasion – even more so than at the first night – must be so impossible to ignore (and why would you?) that one can’t help wondering to what extent they feel their creativity is being given an opportunity to shine or simply go through the expected motions. Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic, from the 1995 Proms, remains a benchmark for ruthless originality in this concert, though it’s worth remembering that that particular piece was not a concert-opener, but occupied a prime position later in the concert. How nice it would be if the tradition of commissioning a world première for the last night could return to being a more major work in the concert rather than the amuse-bouche that the Proms seems to believe is sufficient. Perhaps then composers could do their own thing both more expansively and in the way they’d really like, although the experience and aftermath of Panic may well have scared off the Proms organisers for good on that score. (Apropos: i wonder what would shock people today?)

Nonetheless, one or two of the commissions in recent years – i’m thinking particularly of Tom Harrold’s Raze (2016) and Mark Simpson’s Sparks (2012) – have demonstrated the capacity and the courage to try and squeeze some imagination into their tiny sliver of the evening. And the same was true of last night’s curtain-raiser, Flounce, by Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski.

The way she responded to the first of my pre-première questions sums up the essence of Flounce: “I’m often navigating in an area between exciting timbral qualities and more conventional gestures like melodic fragments. A feeling of air, space and clarity are important, and I also hope my music is always somewhat emotional.” Timbre, fragments, both of these are very clearly paramount in the work’s muscular opening moments, a shrill, rambunctious, noisy start that’s swiftly overlaid with assorted motifs and gestures. Timbres, timbres everywhere, and the whole thing seemingly constructed from the teeny-tiniest notions of ideas. But then comes the “air, space and clarity”, in the first of a number of occasions when Wennäkoski disrupts the pulse (via harsh bursts that seem to be the aural equivalent of shaking an Etch A Sketch), bringing about decidedly more drifting, lyrical episodes. In these we find many more “melodic fragments”, never quite adding up to the kind of neo-post-post-neo-romantic tune that these last night offerings often feel duty-bound to deliver, but instead creating something far more interesting. For all its moments of bluster and bravado (and they are only moments), Flounce is a piece that keeps making clear just how pensive it is – almost dangerously so around halfway through, killing the very real momentum and heft of a section full of swelling gestural development in favour of a relatively lengthy period of concise but expressive wind melodies, answered by the strings (and underpinned by a faint tapping, keeping the pulse alive), in what is essentially an interlude. With a name like Flounce, perhaps the piece ought to end, as it began, at pace and in a prancing romp, though even here Wennäkoski’s more interested in making sparks fly than simply indulging in a head-bangingly relentless crash into the buffers.

Flounce is easily one the most imaginative and unusual of the Proms Last Night commissions of recent years. It may work as a concert-opener, but – unlike most of its predecessors – that’s by no means all that it is, and for that she deserves kudos and congratulations. The world première was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Wennäkoski’s compatriot, Sakari Oramo.

And there we have it – another season of Proms premières over and done with. From my perspective, notwithstanding some of the issues i’ve raised here and elsewhere recently, it’s been an enjoyable experience, tilted heavily in favour of imagination and unpredictability. Looking back, the ones that stand out most, and which i’ve kept and keep returning to, were those by Harrison Birtwistle, Pascal Dusapin (which i admit was a surprise), Mark-Anthony Turnage, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Andrea Tarrodi, Tom Coult, Erkki-Sven TüürCatherine Lamb and Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch – and i suspect i’ll be adding Lotta Wennäkoski to that list.

How you feel about them, of course, may well be different. So, as usual, i’ll be keeping the 5:4 Proms Polls open for another two weeks to give as many people time to listen to as many of the pieces as possible. If any of you haven’t yet had your say on any of the 24 premières (and a few of them have had significantly fewer votes than the rest, particularly Judith Weir, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Andrea Tarrodi, which is curious in itself), get listening, get thinking and get voting on the Proms Polls page. In a fortnight i’ll crunch all the numbers and give a rundown on how you voted.

Lotta Wennäkoski – Flounce (World Première)

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