Proms 2017: the premières – how you voted

by 5:4

i want to say thank you to all of you who took time to vote in this year’s 5:4 Proms polls. More of you than ever expressed your views about this year’s premières: a total of 1,096 votes were cast, an increase of 17% from last year.

However, the distribution of those votes was highly unbalanced. Obviously, some pieces are going to be more appealing than others, but the extent of the disparity was much greater than in previous years. For example, the works by Tom Coult and Harrison Birtwistle both elicited 100+ votes, while others barely managed twenty. That’s in part due to the difference in time – the poll for each successive première is available for less long than its predecessors, and this is the main reason why i keep the polls open for a fortnight after the Proms have finished – yet this clearly isn’t the whole story. Roderick Williams’ Là ci darem la mano was the third première, well over two months ago, but still only managed 31 votes. Whether that’s to do with the fact that Williams is less well-known/-regarded as a composer, or that it took place in an afternoon chamber concert rather than an evening event, or that the work was vocal and/or in a concert otherwise filled with Monteverdi, who knows? In some other cases the relative lack of votes seemed surprising. Mark-Anthony Turnage usually stirs up a fair amount of interest, yet his large-scale song cycle Hibiki mustered a mere 32 votes. Has his star finally waned? Whatever the reasons, the range of the disparity is considerable and worth noting.

For the last couple of years, the number-crunching formulae i’ve used on the polls data has taken the number of votes into account so as not to skew the results, and this year i’ve also included the work’s duration as a factor: if two pieces are equally liked or disliked, the longer of the pieces will prevail (this is already an important factor in the crunching that goes into producing my end of the year best album lists). And because if a job’s worth doing, etc. etc., i’ve used the actual duration of the piece –  i.e. from the start of the music to the first clap at the end – rather than the advertised duration. Apropos: for the most part the actual and advertised durations were pretty similar – i.e. ± a minute or so – the one exception being Gerald Barry’s Canada, which was a full four minutes fewer than threatened promised. Anyway, that’s enough preambular wafflestats, here are the results of how you all voted.

Worst New Work: Julian Anderson – The Imaginary Museum

Runner Up: James MacMillan – A European Requiem

Now this was a close-run result. As i updated the figures throughout this year’s Proms, the worst piece went back-and-forth between the Anderson and the MacMillan, and in the end The Imaginary Museum was only narrowly ahead. But all things considered, the right piece definitely ‘won’. Quite apart from the comments posted on the blog, i’ve never before received so many private messages and emails from readers expressing their outrage at the combination of laziness and ineptitude exhibited by Anderson’s astonishingly rubbish piece (i can’t help wishing these remarks had been made – loudly – in public). The argument that the Proms needs to stop idly commissioning works from the same, imaginatively moribund shower has never been more pressingly urgent.

In comparison, while MacMillan’s A European Requiem is nowhere near so piss-poor, the verdict many of you gave – which i echo – is that he’s become a tired, predictable composer whose work – in terms of both its musical and extra-musical concerns – is sufficiently out of step as to have become a tedious irrelevance. Considering the excitement and fire that surrounded his earliest output – and which he’s able to muster in his more recent work now and again (usually when allowing himself to be more abstract) – it’s a real shame. But the same argument needs to be made here too: the Proms would benefit in a big way from his being absent for the next few years at least. Time for a large dose of fresh blood and fresh air.

Best New Work: Harrison Birtwistle – Deep Time

Runner Up: Lotta Wennäkoski – Flounce

Now this was not a close-run result. Birtwistle’s Deep Time was out in front all the way through, and while fans of Lotta Wennäkoski’s Last Night opener made a valiant attempt to topple it (an extremely impressive feat considering it was only premièred two weeks ago, compared to Birtwistle’s two months ago), it would have needed more than twice as many positive votes to do it. Birtwistle has become a kind of ‘grandfather’ of contemporary music, demonstrating that most difficult of artistic achievements, to be consistent yet unpredictable. And with Deep Time, as with much of his more recent music, it’s even become possible to use the word ‘accessible’ without provoking laughs. So i’m not surprised you overwhelmingly voted this your favourite new work. In hindsight, hearing such an impressive piece as this so early in the season perhaps made the music of lesser worth seem all the more egregious by contrast. In the introduction to my article about Lotta Wennäkoski’s Flounce, i described Birtwistle’s Panic as “a benchmark for ruthless originality” specifically in the Last Night of the Proms; looking more broadly, Birtwistle’s music is surely a benchmark for contemporary music full stop; fearless and dangerous.

i don’t think i would have predicted you’d have voted Wennäkoski’s Flounce as the second best of this year’s premières, but i can see why you did. It’s five years since the Last Night work has done well in these polls (Mark Simpson’s sparks came second in 2012), but the invention in Flounce, and above all its preparedness not simply to do something obvious – i.e. the usual four-minute exercise in playful bombast – set it apart in a way that’s not just impressive, but shows that the piece has legs beyond simply getting a concert up and running. i’ve returned to it numerous times since the première, and keep finding new things in it; you can’t say that about most of the Last Night premières.

So that’s it for another year. Thanks for all – well, most – of your comments throughout the summer, which have given my deliberations much food for thought. In addition to the Birtwistle, my own personal favourites were Dusapin’s Outscape, a beautiful piece that really took me by surprise, Turnage’s Hibiki, another work of real beauty, filled here with a horribly effective sense of aching pain, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Chorale Prelude based on ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’, which demonstrated the extent of musical drama that can be packed into just four minutes, and Andrea Tarrodi’s Liguria, where a clear programmatic scheme was presented in an attractively abstract manner. i also really enjoyed Tom Coult’s St John’s Dance, Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Flamma, Catherine Lamb’s Prisma Interius V and Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s The Minutes. In the case of those last two pieces, it’s a shame that arguably the most radically unconventional of all this year’s Proms premières took place away from the Royal Albert Hall. For the time being, progress and the Proms remain stubbornly estranged.

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