Masterprize, Barbican Hall, London

Short-changed: an evening of brows worn at the waist
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So Justin Timberlake is the new Michael Jackson, Zaragoza the new Ibiza, Jerusalem artichokes the new broccoli. What is the new C-word? Contemporary! Yes, this was the dirty 12-letter word so scrupulously avoided by presenter Nathalie Wheen throughout the final of last week's Masterprize at the Barbican; the big-bucks composition competition that attempts to bridge the gap between "new music" and an audience taught to believe that anything that demands a teensy bit of concentration is automatically "elitist"; the composition competition that gives you, the Classic FM and, yes, Radio Latvia listeners, the chance to influence the direction of modern music; the composition competition that awards £25,000 to the creator of one of six eight- to 10-minute pieces of symphonic pastiche; the composition competition whose jury had not one composer among its panel of eight experts; the composition competition whose prize money would, in these straitened times, pay for two complete operas from several of our better-known - and better - British composers. Go figure.

Before I record my impressions of Bechara El-Khoury's Les Fleuves Engloutis, Robert Henderson's Einstein's Violin, Arturs Maskats's Tango, Anton Plate's You Must Finish Your Journey Alone, Christopher Theofanidis's Rainbow Body or Nicolas Bacri's improbably titled Symphonie No 6 Opus 60, there's one point I feel bound to make. It could be that each of the finalists was simply trying to pass the exam. For all I know, every one of them might normally write music far more radical or substantive than this and their scoring was nothing if not competent. But the works they submitted to Masterprize played like suggested orchestrations for a Paul McCartney symphony. By offering these snippety samples as the best of modern music, the Masterprize mavens are insulting their audience quite outrageously. (And if I were John McClaren, ex-banker, thriller-writer and founder of Masterprize, I'd give Latvia a wide berth for a wee while.) For if "contemporary" is the new C-word, Masterprize is the new Marie-Antoinette. Can't get bread? Eat brioche! Can't feel a sense of entitlement or access to Kurtag, Adams, Carter or Ligeti? Listen to the relaxing sounds of El-Khoury, Henderson, Maskats, Plate, Theofanidis and Bacri; six composers whose Masterprize entries combine to make Andre Previn's A Streetcar named Desire sound like Wozzeck.

It's much to the credit of conductor Daniel Harding and the players of the London Symphony Orchestra that consummate professionalism was maintained across an evening where brows were worn so low that they might have been moustaches. Only one on-stage smirk was seen, and were I expected to rub a plastic bag in time to the dyspeptic gloom of Anton Plate's musical mid-life crisis I'd have smirked too. The utter predictability of every orchestral effect and harmonic shift - other then the rustling plastic - was quite astounding. As with the 2001 Masterprize final, the six pieces here fell into one of two groups; murky or perky. Maskats, Bacri, Plate and El-Khoury went for murky (loosely defined as slow-fast-slow or Shostakovich-lite), the two American composers for perky (loosely defined as fast-slow-fast or Copland-lite). That Theofanidis's Rainbow Body - a garishly multi-coloured, ooey-booey symphonic treatment of a Hildegard von Bingen melisma - combined perkiness with a spritz of Oprah Book Club spirituality naturally gave it the popular edge and he won.

Looking on the bright side, Rainbow Body might shift a few more copies of A Feather on the Breath of God. But I don't know who the audience for this stuff is. Quite seriously, I don't know a single person who, even without the scantest of musical education to assist them in decodifying contemporary music, prefers anodyne to interesting, however smartly it's packaged. So who's buying into Masterprize?

It would be all too easy to have a pop at Classic FM here. (Certainly Wheen made much of her station's position as the sole broadcaster of nothing but classical music, which is, according to the BPI's somewhat malleable definition of "classical", entirely true.) So here goes. In endorsing Masterprize, Classic FM are doing for music what Prince Charles has done for architecture. And Masterprize has its grubby fingers spread far more widely than the British or Latvian airwaves. It has them firmly gripped around the throats of Britain's young musicians. Shipping 500 of them into the Barbican to hear the LSO is, undeniably, a good thing. But instead of peddling pap to the 13 different youth orchestras involved in the Masterprize education programme and amplifying it with workshops on "Latin American rhythm, gospel singing, gamelan playing, and rapping", why isn't the £25,000 prize money going towards exposing these kids to the real stuff? Why not send them to Berlin for a weekend with Sir Simon, or pack them off to Banff or Tanglewood? Send them to Oliver Knussen. Get them to work with Thomas Adès. Commission something good. Donate a few instruments to the schools that cannot afford them. Give Britain's young black and Asian musicians enough education to fight their way into an increasingly white, middle-class industry. Or would that not give enough glory to the sponsors? Of course, it was wise to avoid the C-word in Masterprize. Because nothing in its bland, revisionist shortlist, however "new", was remotely contemporary. And though Christopher Theofanidis is £25,000 richer now, I somehow feel that the rest of us have been severely short-changed.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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