Calm, wry and modest, Judith Weir is an unusually sensible figure in the world of contemporary music. If she has enjoyed any sudden moments of spiritual transport via this or that religion, she has kept them to herself, and has not, so far as I am aware, claimed an ancestral link to a remote planet, been embarrassed on the internet by a vengeful lover, or annoyed anyone by being too commercially successful. What a shame, then, that she will now be known as the woman who killed off the BBC Composer Weekend.
Since 1988, the Weekend has been an annual fixture, offering three days of music by composers commonly considered to be difficult, be they dead (Berg, Janacek, Hindemith, Martinu, Cage) or alive (Birtwistle, Boulez, Henze, Carter). At best, such concentrated exposure has stimulated new appetites and transformed perceptions. At worst, it has revealed some very skimpily clad emperors. But in recent years, composers overprogrammed in Britain (MacMillan, Turnage) have been featured while those of international significance (Ligeti, Andriessen, Kurtag) are ignored and what was once a cultural imperative seemed to have become a means of keeping the noisiest boys in the classroom quiet.
I say boys, because until last year's Sofia Gubaidulina Weekend, even Nadia and Lilli Boulanger, who taught anyone worth teaching, had failed to make the grade. Yet much as I admire some of Weir's music, neither she nor the high priestess of Soviet gloom has the range to support such intense programming (few composers do). If Gubaidulina's voice is a loud wail of misery, Weir's is perceptive, self-contained, amused. It's the voice of a person who notices small details that others might miss, and, ironically, an ideal subject for one of the Composer Days that next year will replace the Weekend.
Of the 50 works performed in Judith Weir: Telling the Tale, the finest were Weir's quietest and subtlest: the intoxicating 1997 Piano Concerto (played by Edward Pick and the Guildhall Chamber Orchestra), and the playful 1983 solo piano work The Art of Touching the Keyboard (played by William How-ard). When Weir essays stridency, something falters in her music, making it congested and clumsy. Though the BBC Singers smoothed over the rough edges in Missa El Cid (1988), the conceit of King Harald's Saga (1979), "a grand opera in three acts"for solo voice, fell flat in Elin Manahan Thomas's polite choral scholar performance.
The sole premiere, Concrete (2008), was an awkward collage of recitation (Sam West declaiming excerpts from John Evelyn's diary and architects' notes on the development of the Barbican), mockney choral incantations and orchestral irridescence (BBC SO and Chorus). Weir is a dab hand at irridescence, but as this, the disjointed Emily Dickinson setting Moon and Star, and Saturday's blustery performance of The Vanishing Bridegroom showed, her ear for poetry is unreliable. Weir can zoom in on a colour or a fragrance, as in woman.life.song (2000) and her exquisite children's choir setting of e e cummings's little tree, but she cannot sustain a narrative.
For the chance to hear woman.life.song (one of the finest song-cycles of the past 20 years) sung with a real sense of celebration by Rowan Hellier, I'm grateful to the BBC. But a grand tradition like the Composer Weekend deserved a grander finale.