Back in April, when i summarised the new music featured at this year’s Proms, i mentioned that the time might have come for me to finally give up trying to find some enthusiasm for its safe, unimaginative offerings. The 2023 season has been up and running for a couple of weeks now, and sure enough, while it’s very disappointing, i’m not remotely surprised to have found the majority of the first crop of new works to offer little more than the most basic form of engagement, let alone something truly individual or radical.
What can you say about Grace-Evangeline Mason‘s appallingly rubbish Ablaze the Moon, premièred by the BBC Philharmonic and Mark Wigglesworth, yet another example of her penchant for the most generic, filmic, primary-coloured blather. It’s both instantly recognisable from the myriad other versions of exactly the same thing we’ve all heard so many, many times before, yet also instantly forgettable for the lack of a single, tangible, memorable idea. Everything, everywhere, nebulous and ephemeral, but never in a way that delivers more. This is not the stuff of concert halls, but the kind of vapid underscore beloved of BBC nature documentaries, which is surely where her career should be confined. Olivia Belli‘s short organ piece Limina Luminis, premièred by Anna Lapwood, was similarly empty, optimistically hoping that a blank, burbling undercurrent of arpeggios might pass for excitement, barely enlivened by the most basic melodic shapes thrown above.
Both Noriko Koide‘s Swaddling Silk and Gossamer Rain and Helen Grime‘s Meditations on Joy simply left me shrugging. The latter plays into Grime’s familiar forms of gnarly spikes and turbulent exuberance, but i always tend to come away from her work feeling i’ve heard it all from her (and others, especially James MacMillan) before, just in a different configuration. Koide’s piece benefits from – finally! – sounding genuinely different, though it’s hard not to feel that it’s just too inert for its own good, sounding hesitant and uncertain where she’s presumably hoping for an atmosphere of quiet mystery and wonder.
It’s been interesting to compare Catherine Lamb‘s revised and expanded portions transparent/opaque, given its first performance last Monday, with the incomplete version performed in 2014. The movement titles have changed – from “expand”, “saturate”, “collapse” to “skin/shimmer”, “bone/saturate”, “nerve/cluster” – but the fundamentals of the piece seem the same, progressing from strings, to strings and brass (omitting the timpani originally used in the second movement), to strings, brass and wind. Having been impressed by Lamb’s first take on the work – when it only consisted of two movements, with the third not yet realised – i was surprised to find its revised, complete version to be altogether less effective and arresting. It’s pretty enough, i suppose, but Lamb’s work has usually tended to do more than just passively caress my ears and hope that i might pay it some attention. Based on a first couple of listens, this final version of the piece seems surprisingly inert, with a weak long-term development (hobbled by some clunky pauses breaking up the flow) and a sense of direction that’s as clear as before, but which now doesn’t exactly feel compelling. Perhaps, in hindsight, the shorter version made the music more incisive and cohesive.
The one première so far to be more meaningfully imaginative and personal is Let There Be Light by Ukranian composer Bohdana Frolyak. i was rather excited at the prospect of this piece, having previously spent time with Frolyak’s two symphonies (composed in 1998 and 2009). Both of them, among other things, establish a fascinating tension between lyricism and anguish, coupled to a mode of expression in which, once things start, they don’t stop, due to ongoing, rather claustrophobically-sustained peripheral material that never goes away. Let There Be Light, premièred on the opening night of the festival by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dalia Stasevska, seems to be clearly enough by the same composer of those works, though i wonder if its limited time frame of nine minutes to some extent diminishes its relative power (the symphonies both have a duration of around 25 minutes, and need it).
The work’s greatest strength – as with the symphonies – is its apparently unquenchable desire to sing, which here manifests on both large and small scales, grand tutti sweeps and intimate chamber counterpoint. Where Let There Be Light sounds most effective is in its periods of ambiguity, above all in the sequence around six minutes in, where everything becomes suspended, as if the music had somehow managed to discover and occupy an infinitesimal space in between the two chords of a cadence. The past and present traumatic effects of Russia’s warmongering on Frolyak’s homeland have obviously played their part in her music, though it’s striking that where previously one heard defiance and strength, even anger, in her music, here the prevailing tone is a desperate, imploring kind of lyrical tenderness. Perhaps this is music that’s broken, even bloody – but, hopefully, not bowed.