Proms 2012: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Canon Fever (World Première)

by 5:4

The 2012 Proms season was launched this evening with the world première of a new work from Mark-Anthony Turnage. Titled Canon Fever, the piece is an unabashed concert-opener, as Turnage explains:

What constitutes a good concert opener? […] The music is irreverent; it doesn’t behave itself, it wakes the audience up. I hate well-behaved fanfares, the sort with clever little harmonic sidesteps and neat academic counterpoint. Give me messy, give me dirty. […] I wanted [Canon Fever] to be virtuosic but also slightly tongue-in-cheek and, hopefully, fizzy. […] I wanted to pack a lot in but not be too careful, so I let it spew out all over the place; there is a cascade of notes that fill up to breaking point. I could have been perverse and added metal scaffolding (brake drums and old-style hunting horns) but I wanted something useful, something that could be played by any orchestra, anywhere. (from an article in yesterday’s Guardian)

There’s something admirable about Turnage’s intentions both to rekindle and revamp the idea of a fanfarish concert opener, and the music he goes on to cite as examples—by Ligeti, Beethoven, Walton and Bernstein—make the prospect all the more exciting. Yet what Turnage delivers is a little under three minutes of essentially empty bombast. Trumpets lead the way throughout, kick-starting the work with tambourines, ushering it along over a persistent ‘oom-pah’ set up by the heavier percussion, all the while rising and spilling over each other. There’s a momentary retreat, heavily repetitive, before they instigate a final crescendo leading to the work’s conclusion. As far as the title’s concerned, ‘Fever’ is right; the piece is filled with endless motivic repetitions that certainly seem a little unhinged; but ‘Canon’ is a complete red herring—hockets, imitations and responses do not a canon make. Moreover, Turnage’s reliance on mere gestures throughout completely blunts the sharp edges he clearly wants the work to possess; where’s the focus? what are we listening to? Perhaps, being generous, music like this cleanses the aural palate to some extent; it certainly makes one appreciate what comes after it. But whether that makes it a successful concert opener is debatable. As Turnage states, he didn’t want the piece to be “too careful”, nor did he want it to be “clever”; Canon Fever is most definitely neither.

Tonight’s première was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Their playing, as one would expect, was first-rate, yet Turnage doesn’t half make them sound like a school orchestra.

For this piece, and all this year’s Proms premières, you can have your say on the polls page.


Mark-Anthony Turnage - Canon Fever
  • Loved it! (8%, 5 Votes)
  • Liked it (14%, 9 Votes)
  • Meh (32%, 20 Votes)
  • Disliked it (21%, 13 Votes)
  • Hated it! (25%, 16 Votes)

Total Voters: 63

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Programme Note

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Wow, many people really didn’t like this piece! I completely agree with Simon’s assessment of it, in that it makes us appreciate what comes after it. I liked the energy of the piece, and that it really gets the audience ready for the meat of the program. It isn’t meant to be a great work, and it certainly doesn’t try to be, but it is still a pleasant experience.

Thanks for the continued dedication to these world premieres, Simon! Looking forward to what is coming next.

Jonathan Z

As a musical conservative, I’m not generally a fan of modern music, although I try to keep an open mind to the point that I actively force myself to try to enjoy it. The result with Canon Fever is that I didn’t like it, but neither did i hate it. The piece didn’t provoke me to fast-forward (I’m listening on the BBC iPlayer rebroadcast), but I’m certainly not eager to hear it again.

I did enjoy the sense of a stylized pop-music rhythm which I feel I don’t hear very often in classical music (in most cases for the better) and listening for the cascading succession of repeating motives, but even that became quickly tedious

Paul Pellay

I was in the hall for this, and to me it was “in-one-ear-out-the-other” music – which quite honestly is what a lot of Turnage’s recent work sounds like to me. It was short and fizzy enough, but inoffensive, which may not have been quite what he was aiming for.
Taking this work together with some of his other recent stuff (and I add the Anna Nicole opera to this list along with Hammered Out), is Turnage maybe going through some sort of compositional mid-life crisis? For my money it’s been some time since he’s done anything comparable to what he was writing in the 1990s (3 Screaming Popes, Drowned Out, Your Rockaby, Blood on the Floor).


It really is a shame that a lot of his recent work hasn’t had a commercial recording. There’s one notable piece that really sticks out as being a masterpiece, and that is A Prayer Out of Stillness (2007) for bass and string orchestra. It is one of the most beautiful and lyrical works I’ve heard this side of the millenium. It is particularly bluesy and is partially improvised (you can look at a perusal score on I may upload my radio recording to YouTube one of these days, but I’d really hate to put up a recording with all sorts of extraneous noise and one of low quality.

[…] lack of enthusiasm for the occasion, due both to the recent track record of the opening night (Turnage & Weir in the last two years, both submitting relatively drab, safe pieces) as well as this […]

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