‘An Unlikely Arena: New Music at The Last Night of the Proms’ – by Shaun Lyon
Shaun Lyon was the winner of the 2012 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism for his piece ‘An Unlikely Arena: New Music at The Last Night of the Proms’.
Shaun Lyon was born in Southport in 1967 and grew up in West Lancashire. He studied piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music and City University and now teaches, composes and writes.
Only the most fanatical subscriber to the notion that there is no such thing as bad publicity might regard The Last Night of the Proms as an ideal setting for the premiere of a new orchestral piece, or at least one written in a gritty, unapologetically modernist style. As past and present BBC Controllers of Music have been all too aware, The Last Night is sui generis, a behemoth bloated by tradition and the expectations of a bigger and very different audience from that generally found snaking around the Albert Hall on summer evenings. For many of the corporation’s cultural arbiters it is an institution at best problematic (trying to maintain freshness in the face of unbending ‘tradition’) and at worst an embarrassing spectacle they would privately prefer to do away with (vulgar audience displays of jingoism and boorishness).
Until the mid-1990’s The Last Night, unlike other concerts in the proms calendar, had rarely seen the premiere of a new work, although a few attempts at ringing the changes were made in the early 1970’s. Malcolm Arnold, for example, was invited to re-think Wood’s previously indispensable Fantasia on English Sea Songs and, possibly taking Wood’s original intent that the proms should educate as well as entertain a little too literally, wrote the Hornpipe in an irregular 5/8 metre. (In Wood’s version of the dance convention demands that seasoned Last-Nighters archly bob up and down to the strict 2 beats per bar; attempts to do so to Arnold’s music must have been interesting to witness, to say the least). Unsurprisingly, the work failed to become a Last Night staple. Then in 1995 came a defining and cataclysmic moment in the history of the Last Night and its relationship with new music. Controller John Drummond, who made no secret of his distaste for the event in its accepted guise, commissioned a new work from Harrison Birtwistle. Given the uncompromising knotty musical language of Birtwistle’s music it is hard to see this as anything other than an attempt to epater la bourgeoisie. Originally intended as a short item in the first half, the piece, Panic – a dithyramb for alto saxophone, jazz drummer, wind, brass and percussion grew in scale and conception as the composer developed his ideas. Because of complicated seating arrangements for the players it transpired that the work could only appear after the interval, in other words in the ‘traditional’ second half. In the event, the party-popping, union jack-clad throng – many of whose loftiest hopes for the evening might conceivably have constituted being able to wave a flag while lustily bellowing ‘Rule Britannia’ – were given a bracing introduction to Contemporary Classical Music at its most uncompromising; a solo alto saxophone shrieking almost unceasingly above a battery of percussion and flailingly discordant wind instruments for eighteen long minutes. At the end there were boos, which could have been no more than either Drummond or Birtwistle surely expected and many expressions of public outrage via the letters pages of the Daily Telegraph.
And yet, Drummond’s successors, first Nicholas Kenyon and currently Roger Wright, have grasped the baton of new music and continued to programme what might fairly be described as snippets of contemporary work in The Last Night party, and indeed often works that make few, if any concessions to popular audience appeal. This has been done so consistently for the last few seasons that it is in danger of becoming – dare one say it? – a tradition. In 2012 young English composer and clarinettist Mark Simpson accepted a commission from the BBC to compose a fairly short fanfare-type work to open The Last Night. Simpson’s talent is not of the slow-burn kind. In 2006 at the age of eighteen he burst into public consciousness by winning both the BBC Young Musician of the Year and the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year, the first person ever to do so. Wunderkind virtuosos in short trousers sweeping all before them in a blur of prestidigitation are part of the fabric of Classical Music; a familiar and on examination, often not terribly interesting part. This was something quite different; a mature eighteen year-old of phenomenal instrumental control who also happened to be a reflective and essentially creative musician. Since then Simpson has continued to perform with a host of stellar musicians and furthered his composition studies with another highly regarded, more senior British talent, Julian Anderson. Doubtless this Proms commission is merely the next step in cementing the transition from extravagantly gifted tiro to established pillar of the Contemporary Classical Music world.
The very first bars of sparks (the lower-case ‘s’ is unexplained in any programme notes I have been able to find) establish immediately that it is a work in an uncompromising, if familiar musical language. There are no obviously palatable ostinato major chords here a la Adams or Philip Glass-style arpeggios. Busily scurrying strings in very high registers combine with piccolo and piano at similarly dizzying altitudes. Trombones and trumpets enter with menacing and aggressively stabbing notes. Jagged fragments of almost-themes explode and are instantly extinguished. A wood-block thrums out insistently while the orchestra plays across it in an ultra-syncopated manner and just for a moment one seems to catch an echo of something almost jazzy in the brass glissandos but not quite, like Leonard Bernstein bizarrely refracted through a futuristic, alien lens. After a slightly less frenetic central section the high slithering textures return and the piece ends enigmatically with a single note, the final spark that flickers for just a moment before final extinction. To be clear: Simpson’s musical language is dissonant, spiky, uncompromisingly, for want of a more precise term ‘Modern’ (at least in the way that non-specialist listeners might think of describing dissonant contemporary classical music, even though Modernism as an aesthetic has long been superseded). Over and above the ceaseless energy, the teeming multitude of sounds, the work’s overriding concern is with texture – the creation of highly-wrought sound-worlds through orchestral colour (and even instrumental techniques – at one point the trombones are asked to sing through their instruments, for example). In this we might see the influence of Simpson’s teacher, Anderson, who is likewise lauded for the originality of his orchestral palette.
Two things at least are beyond doubt: that Simpson is in perfect control of his forces, executing his intentions precisely and that, as is the norm in New Classical Music, he has absolutely no concern with popular appeal. Contemporary Classical Music occupies a unique position in the artistic landscape. Shows by YBA’s sell out, a boundary-pushing novelist like Will Self is a popular and familiar figure but few people beyond the arcane world of Contemporary Music listen to, or have any interest in, it. Even the czars of criticism, the familiar denizens of arts review programmes and the books pages who can glide effortlessly and authoritatively from cutting-edge theatre to the latest gallery opening know nothing. Ask them about contemporary music or even Contemporary Music and they will almost certainly begin to talk about Plan B or the latest hot exponent of Grime to emerge from East London’s mean streets. To feature demanding new work at such an iconic event as The Last Night of the Proms, where the music’s central function is arguably to foster or reinforce a tribal and cultural identity, could be seen as either folly or a courageous attempt to promote serious and worthwhile Art, or indeed both those things. The latter view would certainly get to the heart of Henry Wood’s original vision for the Promenade concerts – that amidst concerts of huge popular appeal the masses might receive the odd improving chunk of Beethoven or Schubert and gradually learn to understand and better appreciate, High Art. As sparks fizzed into silence on 2012’s Last Night the promenaders responded with respectful, if hardly wild applause; certainly, there was no booing a la Panic. They had paid their dues and knew it. The medicine had been taken and now there were lollipops to look forward to.