Proms 2018: the premières – how you voted

by 5:4

Many thanks to all of you for the comments you made and votes you cast during my coverage of the premières at the 2018 Proms season. A total of 1,467 votes were cast this year, an increase of 34% on last year’s ‘turnout’.

Once again, there was something of an imbalance in the extent to which certain pieces attracted more votes than others. For the last few years, whichever new work is played first in the season – often in the first night of the Proms – has usually attracted the largest number of votes, which isn’t necessarily surprising, both in terms of the amount of time people have to express a view about this piece being longer than any other, as well as it generally tending to attract more attention as it gets the Proms ball rolling. That was again the case this year, with Anna Meredith’s opening night première Five Telegrams receiving the most votes (97). Aside from this, the ‘turnout’ figure for most of the pieces was broadly consistent, though as ever there were one or two that stood out due to apparent voter apathy, the worst affected this year being Iain Bell’s Aurora, curiously attracting a mere 17 votes.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning in passing that, in addition to establishing what you’ve deemed to be the best and worst new works, my number-crunching also looks at the most divisive and most uninteresting (i.e. ‘meh’) pieces as well. This year, Ēriks Ešenvalds‘ choral work Shadow proved the most divisive, with the positives and negatives exactly matched, and the piece that left the majority of you shrugging with indifference was Luca Francesconi‘s weird WWI commemoration We Wept. But let’s turn our attention to the real winners and losers this year.

Worst New Work: Philip Venables – Venables Plays Bartok

Runner Up: Joby Talbot – Ink Dark Moon

For the longest time it looked as if Joby Talbot had this in the bag, only for Philip Venables to come along in the final straight and prove even less popular. It was a close-run thing, though: 69% of votes cast for Venables’ piece were negative, while for Talbot the figure was 66%. Personally, i’d have put them the other way round but it hardly matters, i have to agree with your verdict. Venables’ large-scale exercise in soggy, superficial nostalgia ranks as one of the most self-indulgent, cringe-worthy compositions i’ve ever heard. i’m not well-acquainted with Venables’ work, so i’m remaining optimistic for now that this was a one-off misstep.

In the case of Joby Talbot’s guitar concerto, it seems to me we had a repeat of the experience of Julian Anderson’s piano concerto The Imaginary Museum, which you voted as worst new work of last year’s Proms. Talbot’s piece was just as compositionally lazy and imaginatively moribund as Anderson’s, seemingly making itself up on the spot while striving to maintain a thick, sticky veneer of glossy filmic sugar. From your verdict it’s clear i was by no means alone in finding it to be stunningly inept.

It’s important to note that both of these pieces were Proms commissions, paid for by the BBC. So we all know who really paid for them, in every sense.

Best New Work: Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 3

Runner Up: David Bruce – Sidechaining

This wasn’t a close-run thing at all, which came as a surprise. i have to confess i thought that Nørgård’s Third Symphony would prove a lot more divisive, that the work’s tilt-shift into radiance and transcendence would rub against more jaded musical outlooks. But the enormous wave of love you showed for this piece – 84% of votes were positive – proved conclusively that the great Dane’s symphonic prowess continues to enchant audiences, setting the seal on his place among music’s greatest symphonists. As for me, while it’s not my favourite of his symphonies (that honour probably goes to No. 6) i do think the unique – and, considering his previous symphonies, unexpected – trajectory Nørgård takes in this piece is wondrous.

As far as Sidechaining is concerned, i liked this piece a lot and it doesn’t surprise me you voted this your second favourite première. Cheerful romps always do good business at the Proms, but David Bruce demonstrated that it’s possible to do this without relying solely on surface-level shenanigans and predictable orchestral tropes and gestures, particularly in its twisting, almost bloody-minded approach to structure. In other words, it’s fun – but it’s a lot more than just that.

In terms of personal favourites, i had a lot of time for two jazz-inflected pieces that didn’t seem to go down well in the polls: Iain Farrington‘s Gershwinicity and Uri Caine‘s Hamsa. i’ve listened again to both these pieces numerous times since first hearing them, which has only increased my enjoyment of them. Hamsa, in particular, is so crammed with stuff that the only way to appreciate it is through multiple listenings, but there was clearly something about that piece that the majority of you couldn’t get on board with. (i’d be interested to know more about what this was, so feel free to comment.) Beyond these, the complex mingling of distress and hope in Georg Friedrich Haasthe last minutes of inhumanity remains for me one of the most memorable experiences of this year’s Proms, and while i’m aware that i’m still making my way into its music i feel convinced that there’s something very special (more special than i’d appreciated at first) about Tansy DaviesWhat Did We See? But the piece i think i’ve returned to most is Chaines‘ beautiful reimagining of their own piece Knockturning, a scrummy blend of post-impressionism and cool beats that blisses me out every time i hear it.

Reflecting on this year’s season, the sheer number of premières came as a surprise. In 2016 and 2017 i reviewed 23 and 24 premières respectively; this year it was 39! i haven’t checked this, but i feel sure that not all of those new works were included in the season announcement made back in the spring, but of course that’s hardly something to complain about. Furthermore, the representation of women composers was significantly improved this year: 18 of those 39 premières (46%) were by women composers, which from the perspective of duration amounted to 36% of the new music heard this year (220 out of 551 minutes). There’s still a lot the Proms can do to present a more authentic and insightful portrait of contemporary music-making – yet again, almost no sign of electronics!! – but this is a definite step in a more healthy direction.

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