Proms 2021: the premières – how you voted

by 5:4

Two weeks have passed since this year’s Proms season came to an end, so it’s time to take a look at how you responded to each of the new works in the annual 5:4 Proms première polls. i want to thank all of you who voted; there was a healthy-sized turnout (538 votes) which, for a change, was more evenly distributed across the pieces, though, as always, one or two seemed to attract a lot more voters than others. The polls closed yesterday evening, i’ve just finished crunching the numbers, and here are the results.


Worst New Work

Augusta Read Thomas – Dance Foldings

For me, there were worse pieces than Dance Foldings premièred at this year’s Proms, but fair enough. The runners-up were Gity Razaz’s Mother, James MacMillan’s When Soft Voices Die and Nico Muhly’s A New Flame (after Sweelinck); taken together, all four of these works were deeply problematic in terms of aesthetic and/or conception, so it’s completely understandable that you voted the way you did. i’ll admit to being a little surprised to see the MacMillan voted so negatively, but that’s not because the piece doesn’t deserve it, only that i rather assumed he was perilously close to “national treasure” status by this point and, as a consequence, critically unassailable. It seems not.


Best New Work

George Lewis – Minds in Flux

i’ll admit it: i’m very surprised that Minds in Flux was voted the best. Not because i disagree – not at all – but simply because it was by far the most complex new work at this year’s Proms, making little concession to those of a conservative persuasion who like their music quick, cheap, easy and undemanding. So i tip my hat to you, dear readers, and, in conjunction with your other top choices – Elizabeth Ogonek’s Cloudline, Unsuk Chin’s Subito con forza and George Benjamin’s Concerto for Orchestra, all of which were also among my favourites – i take some comfort that there’s a strong sense out there that new music can be simultaneously challenging and accessible, and ultimately, all the more deeply rewarding.


As for the rest, i really enjoyed Shiva Feshareki’s Aetherworld, but that proved a much more divisive piece in your votes, while Britta Byström’s Parallel Universes, another work i liked, received a positive response from you but not quite enough to be a runner-up among the best.

It’s worth noting that it looked for a while as if Samy Moussa’s A Globe Itself Infolding would be voted the worst new work (and by quite some margin), but at some point the Moussa Fan Club clearly woke up and submitted a robust counter-offensive to the naysayers. As a consequence, it ended up as the most divisive of this year’s premières, closely followed by the piece that i thought might have been (and nearly was) the most divisive, Grace-Evangeline Mason’s The Imagined Forest. This seems to illustrate a clear divide in listeners between those who are happy for the empty clichés of cheap film scores to permeate concert halls, and those who want to keep them at bay.

The works that provoked (if that’s the right word) the most disinterested responses from you were Bernard Hughes’ Birdchant and Charlotte Bray’s Where Icebergs Dance Away; again, this is easy to understand, though i’m going to reiterate that i’m looking forward to the larger work Bray is working on (Forsaken), for which her Proms première seemed to be just a sketch.

Looking at the season overall, it’s a little concerning that there were only 14 premières; last year was unusual due to the pandemic (just eight new works), but in 2019 there were 29 premières, and in 2018 there were as many as 39. One can only hope that the 2022 Proms sees the figure go up substantially higher again.

Two other quick observations, both of which suggest a positive direction for the festival. First, the Proms has finally woken up to the fact that electronics exist in new music. This is something i’ve been commenting on for years, and finally in 2021 the crop of premières started to move beyond the narrow confines of purely instrumental music, with the works by George Lewis and Shiva Feshareki featuring prominent electronic elements. Second, the gender divide seems to have improved somewhat: eight of the 16 premières were by women, and in terms of the actual durations of those pieces, women constituted over 50%: 93 minutes out of a total of 173 minutes. i’m cautiously going to regard that as promising.


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