Many thanks to those of you who voted in this year’s Proms première polls. Not surprisingly, given the circumstances, the turnout was considerably lower than usual, with just under 200 votes cast. Considering that the polls were only open for four weeks this year (instead of the usual 10), and there were just eight works to have an opinion about, that seems fair enough.
It’s a shame to have to report this once again, but the gender divide continues to be a problem, actually taking a turn for the worse this year. In 2019, 45% of the premières were composed by women, amounting to 27% in terms of actual duration. This year, of the eight new works 37% were by women, amounting to a mere 20% of the overall duration. Covid-19 is clearly very far from being the only crisis stubbornly continuing to plague new music at the moment.
Before turning to the pieces you judged to be worst and best, it’s worth mentioning that by far the most divisive new piece was Errollyn Wallen‘s last night new / old mash-up Jerusalem – our clouded hills. The polarised votes for this piece are easy to understand; i loved a lot of what Wallen’s orchestral accompaniment was doing, but for the life of me could never find a way to make it sit comfortably alongside the familiar melody. The two elements seem to create constant friction against each other the whole way through.
And the work that you clearly felt to be the most ‘meh’ this year was Rough Voices by Gavin Higgins. Again, i can empathise with that assessment, but it could hardly be more unfortunate that a work purporting to care about and put forward a message in solidarity with those loving in poverty should turn out to be such a box-ticking, forgettable exercise. It raises the question, yet again, of what purpose or consequence – aside from getting some conscientious indignation off the composer’s chest – can come from this kind of thing. No-one with any sense or compassion could possibly argue with or disagree with Higgins’ sentiments, yet: what now, what’s going to come of it? i wish there was an answer to this that was more than just a shrug.
But let’s turn away from the polarisation and disinterest; here are the pieces that you clearly felt proved to be the real highs and lows of the 2020 Proms.
Worst New Work: Thomas Adès – Dawn
Does anything further need to be said about this staggeringly dreadful pile of drivel? It would be hilarious if it wasn’t such a waste of license-payers’ money, such a waste of time for everyone involved (and that of course includes us, the poor unsuspecting listeners on whom it was so unkindly foisted), and such an abject, grotesquely bare-faced debasement of the concepts of ‘music’, ‘new’ and ‘simplicity’ (and also ‘dawn’, for that matter). As more years pass, the more i’m coming to believe that the highlights of Adès’ career – some of which are equally staggering in their brilliance – are actually aberrations and flukes, and it’s stuff like this that more realistically and accurately typify his music.
Best New Work: Jay Capperauld – Circadian Refrains (172 Days Until Dawn)
i don’t always concur with your choices of best and worst, but on this occasion i couldn’t agree more. It’s especially interesting to reflect that, like Adès’ piece, Capperauld’s is also concerned with the possibility of a dawn. Here, though, it’s infinitely more complex and nuanced – even, dare i say it, pretty unconvincing. The more time i’ve spent with it, the more it seems to consolidate the feelings expressed in my original review, that the ‘dawn’ is perhaps more of an idea, a notion, than an actuality embodied in the music, and that, by the end, the sense that we might just be right back where we started is a distinct possibility. i suspect Jay Capperauld isn’t trying to be as pessimistic as that (though it would be a refreshing attitude for a Proms commission if he was!), but regardless, the work’s lack of certainty is entirely fitting at the present time. Yet it’s not bound by this context; it’s surely a piece that will prove just as engrossing and meaningful long after its dimly-glimpsed dawn has actually (hopefully!) arrived.
As for the rest, i think it’s important to give a shout out for Richard Ayres‘ No. 52 (Three pieces about Ludwig van Beethoven: dreaming, hearing loss and saying goodbye), which was very close behind Capperauld in the polls. The piece is something of a departure from what we usually hear at the Proms, and its considerable personal investment – achingly honest – makes it an all the more heart-rending and authentic experience. There’s something intrinsically horrifying about contemplating encroaching deafness within the context of music; it’s a piece as brave as it is bold.