Proms 2019: the premières – how you voted

by 5:4

Many thanks to all of you who took part in this year’s Proms première polls. As ever, there was a stark imbalance in the number of votes certain works received, but interestingly, whereas in previous years this tended to be focused on works performed earlier in the festival (since there was more time available to vote for them), this year more than ever there was a much more even spread throughout the season as a whole, including pieces premièred quite late. Not surprisingly, it was the better-known composers and/or the most substantial works that garnered the greatest number of votes, while the four short pieces commissioned to ‘respond’ to music by Bach received least interest of all – which arguably says something about how worthwhile it was for the BBC to continue to flog that particular horse.

Speaking of disinterest, it was one of those Bach-related works, Ailie Robertson‘s Chaconne, that received the biggest ‘Meh’ response overall, closely followed by Freya Waley-Cohen‘s Naiad, while at the opposite extreme, the work that proved most divisive was Tobias Broström‘s Nigredo – Dark Night of the Soul, with opinions strongly polarised. But away from the shrugs and the bickering, here are the main winners and losers of this year’s Proms, as voted for by you.

Worst New Work: Hans Zimmer – Earth

Runner Up: Daniel Kidane – Woke

Sometimes this result is absolutely never in doubt, and that could hardly have been more true this year. Zimmer’s Earth produced the most overwhelmingly negative response i’ve ever seen in these polls. With good reason: by this stage – reinforced when listening to his most recent contributions to Hollywood – it’s impossible to tell whether Zimmer puts in any creative effort at all these days or simply scrapes motivic detritus off his floor or out of his bin (if, in fact, he actually has one – can he really tell what’s worth keeping or throwing away anymore?) and then gently reheats and reuses it. Never has there been a more worthy loser in this or indeed any musical category.

As for the runner-up, i can see exactly where you’re coming from. Personally, i was more gobsmacked by the incompetence of Jocelyn Pook’s You Need To Listen To Us – the title of which has only become yet more ironic over time – than anything else this year, but Daniel Kidane’s Woke wasn’t far behind. It would have been much more innocuous had he simply called the piece something like ‘Froth’, which would have perfectly suited its light, empty, frivolous material, but to nonchalantly co-opt such a charged title as Woke – as if it meant anything at all in this context – is, at best, spurious, and at worst, fraudulent and downright insulting.

Best New Work: Dieter Ammann – Piano Concerto

Runner Up: Linda Catlin Smith – Nuages

Yes yes yes – i couldn’t agree more! These two pieces are the ones i’ve returned to most since first hearing them, and every single time i’m taken aback at how much more there is to discover and experience in their very different forms of complexity. When responding to Ammann’s Piano Concerto i wrote how i had “found myself liking it more and more – and i can’t help feeling that, eventually, i’m going to absolutely love it”. This has turned out to be true, and i think it’s a useful reminder that we shouldn’t expect music – or, perhaps, anything – that we ultimately adore to be the result of a seemingly unbidden instance of love at first sight. As i’m sure many of you were, i was gobsmacked and overwhelmed when i first heard this concerto, fascinated by its way of simultaneously sounding clear even though it was blatantly nebulous, transforming into something else. While i’m a lot more certain of how i feel about it now, i’m just as fascinated by this behaviour, it’s one of the most ‘liquid’ pieces of music i’ve ever heard.

i’m really pleased that you all rated Nuages so highly. Music that overtly avoids superficial certainty in favour of a slow-moving, hard-to-parse identity is a rare and welcome thing to hear at the Proms. Linda Catlin Smith’s music keeps us guessing, every bit as slippery as Ammann’s more rapidly shape-shifting material, hinting at melodic and harmonic characters while at the same time turning them away from us, so that we’re still trying to make sense of them even as they’re being replaced by or transforming into something else.

Both of these pieces manage to grab us immediately while at the same time proving endlessly elusive; that’s a difficult balancing act, and i think it’s great that you all feel as positively about that as a listening experience as i do.

As for the rest, i would also flag up Alexia Sloane’s Earthward, Joanna Lee’s At this man’s hand and the collaborative work Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B. as my own personal favourites of this year’s Proms. Whether or not it’s been a “good” year is a matter of taste – and expectation. Personally i found it pretty much par for the course: contemporary music a minority presence again (just over seven hours of music in the entire festival), male composers dominating again, electronics absent again, composers forced to ‘respond’ to earlier music again. Same old, same old. Very same, very old. It’s interesting to note that the percentage of votes at the negative end of the spectrum has increased in the last couple of years (around 30% of all votes cast were negative; 25% were ‘Meh’), so that suggests a general feeling among those of you who voted that the quality of the contemporary music heard at the Proms is slipping. That’s partly down to the composers of course, but not entirely. One can only hope that a more informed and radical mindset might be brought to the choice of programming new music at the Proms – but then, that’s an observation i’m sure i make each and every year.

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Thanks again Simon for all your hard work this season. It really is a wonderful service you provide by giving these works a life beyond their premiere.

I understand your frustration at the relative dearth of contemporary music, however the Proms has never been exclusively a new music festival, and surely it’s unfair to judge it against the standards of, say, HCMF.

Contemporary music has only ever been one aspect of what the Proms is about – yes, Henry Wood certainly had a commendable attitude to commissioning and programming new works, but the bread and butter of the Proms has always been standard repertoire, as evidenced by the Bach, Beethoven and Wagner Nights seen in the final week of this season.

I would say that for most of the Proms audience, this is one of the few times they will engage with a piece of new music, and if that piece is, say, Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concerto, or Linda Catlin Smith’s Nuages, then that’s all to the good.

Ultimately the Proms can’t be all things to all people, but each season there are a handful of new works that I really enjoy and want to listen to again and again. As a listener, that’s all I can ask for.

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