Masterprize, Barbican Hall, London

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To nobody's surprise except that of the new-music mafia, the American composer Pierre Jalbert won the £30,000 Masterprize against four other competitors after the London Symphony Orchestra played their entries in last Wednesday night's final. Well over a thousand composers, including some undisclosed big names, had been eliminated on the way. There were smaller prizes also for the Bromley Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, both of which were judged to have tackled the finalists' pieces best in a separate competition.

This was the second Masterprize. The 1998 launch caused controversy for favouring user-friendly pieces, and on this occasion the principles were broadly the same. Its founder, the former banker, John McLaren, wanted to address the split between new music and the general audience.

Three rounds of judging were steered towards the viewpoints of performers and listeners, rather than composers and critics. For the final, the official panel had 40 per cent of the vote, and even they were dominated by conductors. The rest came from the audience, the LSO, and a public media-based trawl using a pre-recorded CD by different performers and drawing in around 50,000 votes.

So the pieces all had an alternative to the efforts of Daniel Harding, who conducted the final – though at least two came out stronger on the night. Composers came from a narrow range of sources: campus-based or trained, three from the US and a fourth having studied there, all male, and all delivering conventional pieces for orchestra.

The presumption that symphony concerts are the future of new music is arguable at best, leaving little space for creative spirits who have moved on – and there's plenty of evidence that hybrid, mixed-media, post-club culture work has stolen the energy and the younger public. As usual in pseudo-democratic exercises whether architectural or indeed electoral, the real power rested with shortlisting panels, which have no democratic content at all. The public's choice is censored in advance.

What you get with orchestras is music that the composer John Adams has called "playing among the ruins" – great stuff often, including Adams's own, but essentially filling a few gaps in the historical repertoire. From that angle, two of the final pieces seemed in a different league from the others, with an ear for the big but fresh statement: Jalbert's In aeternam, a powerful elegy, and the exhilarating and witty SLALOM by Carter Pann. Of these, Pann's sounded the most robust and likely to stand up to an international career, but Jalbert's was the only one to feel obviously motivated by more than the chance of winning, and its emotional force (it must be the most enjoyable to conduct) won the day.

Music by Anthony Iannaccone and the British hope Alastair King lacked the same personal character, while Wu Xing by Qigang Chen was a throwback, its delicate moments offset by its well-behaved institutional contemporary ambience.

Forced by car trouble to listen to the broadcast relay, I was not surprised to hear the Radio 3 pundits from the new-music establishment going for Wu Xing. They called it "the best piece", as though the matter were obvious in that irritating way that doesn't bother to explain the grounds of judgement, even more so as they didn't think it would win. How cynical can you get? None of them spotted Jalbert. There really still are two kinds of listening out there.

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