Hancock 'concerto' lifts veil on talent

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The Independent Culture
The new season of the Proms has confirmed its commitment to the best of contemporary British composition by fielding, alongside the venerable Sir Michael Tippett, new talent such as Dominic Muldowney, whose concerto based on the theme tune from Hancock's Half Hour was premiered last night.

Muldowney has been director of music at the Royal National Theatre for the past 15 years, so his music has probably been heard by more people than most composers aspire to. But his new work, Trombone Concerto - exploiting both the comic and serious sides to the slide trombone by interweaving a musical tribute to JS Bach with the Hancock tune - is just the sort of high-profile exposure Muldowney, 44, deserves.

The BBC should feel ashamed for not televising it, or any of the other new works this year. The Proms' recent hit rate with new works has shown a distinct improvement. Both John Tavener, with the plangent, soaring cello lines of his The Protecting Veil, and James MacMillan, with the nightmare witchery of his Confession of Isobel Gowdie, have scored popular successes that have gone on to extended life on CD and in the concert hall.

Partly this is a reflection of a genuine flowering of British talent over the past decade or so, a flowering that has taken root on the world stage, too.

Even as the hecklers were massing to disrupt performances of the music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle - the modernist bete noire of the unreconstructed romantics - foreign foundations were queuing up to shower him with cash- rich prizes: $150,000 (pounds 100,000) from the Grawemeyer Award, 250,000DM (pounds 108,000) from Siemens. The mysterious Rex Foundation, unmasked as the cultural wing of psychedelic Sixties rock group the Grateful Dead, has channelled funds into new works by such artists as James Dillon and Michael Finnissy, both proud pupils of the "New Complexity" school.

Among the more mainstream modernists, approachable composers such as Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews and Mark-Anthony Turnage are all making waves on the world scene. John Tavener, high priest of the so-called "Faith Minimalists", was last year honoured with an entire festival of his works in Athens.

At 91, Sir Michael is the senior composer represented in this year's Proms. In September there will be performances of his 1950s Corelli Fantasia and his more recent orchestral piece, The Rose Lake, but he has already made an appearance to present the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society to the 87-year-old Elliott Carter. The American's Fifth String Quartet has just received its London premiere as the centrepiece of a new series of lunchtime chamber music Proms to be performed every Monday in the Britten Theatre of the Royal College of Music.

Although Carter has had work commissioned for the Proms, Sir Michael, stalwart of British music, has never been so honoured. The nearest the Proms ever got was to present the London premiere of Corelli Fantasia back in 1953.

Even Benjamin Britten, until his death surely Tippett's sole rival for the title of Britain's leading post-war composer, was only ever commissioned once.

Few of the works specifically composed for the Royal Albert Hall have ever gone on to join the mainstream: all too often, budding young (and even older) composers, presented with that unique audience, atmosphere and acoustic, have created pieces that work only in the spacious setting of the Albert Hall.

Whatever the audience response, though, Muldowney has scored highly on one point: he did at least complete his piece on time, unlike several more famous names in the Proms' past.

And remembering how the "Lad himself" appreciated the "Unfinished Symphony", it's a good thing too.

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