The Masterprize Barbican
A motherly hug from Cherie Blair spelled "yes, it's true!" for Masterprize winner Andrew March at the LSO's "international composing competition" final on Tuesday night. March, who is still in his early twenties, also picked up a "Quincentenary Prize Commission" (due for delivery in the year 2000) from the Worshipful Company of Musicians, worth pounds 10,000. The Masterprize itself carries a cash yield of pounds 25,000, with pounds 3,000 for runner- up Victoria Borisova-Ollas, pounds 2,000 for Daniele Gasparini (placed third) and pounds 1,000 each for the remaining finalists, Stephen Hartke, Carl Vine and Zhou Long.

Coutts sponsored the final; the LSO, BBC and EMI collaborated for the main competition, and the LSO concert under Daniel Harding was broadcast live on Radio 3 and the BBC World Service. The voting process was underpinned by the BBC's Music Magazine, which had already released all six works on a cover-mount CD and provided voting facilities for its 200,000 readers, whereas the jury on the night - aptly described by host James Naughtie as a "rainbow coalition" - included Vladimir Ashkenazy, Michael Berkeley, Sir George Martin, Thomas Hampson and Michael Kamen. "Six of the best" composers were extracted from 15 semi-finalists, who had in turn been selected from over 1,000 entrants. A heady thought, all those people attempting to compose, and here I quote from the Masterprize fact sheet, "new works for symphony orchestra that are truly original and have the power to communicate and engage a broad range of music-lovers".

Tuesday's evidence suggested a Supermarket Sweep through the orchestra, with all six finalists snatching generous armfuls of tonal glitter. I'd love to have eavesdropped on the voting panel. Would Ashkenazy have concurred with Kamen, or Martin with Berkeley? As to the winning Marine - a travers les arbres, I could quite imagine March climbing a Guernsey cliff-top to embrace the sky: wave on wave of hedonistic harmony broke from the stage, but was it prize-winning material? Not in my view. I'd have opted for the runner-up, the Russian Borisova-Olla and her pulsing essay Wings of the Wind, a trifle overblown perhaps, but confidently focused, both in tone and content. And why not Zhou Long, whose ear-tingling Two Poems from Tang opened the concert and whose mastery of instrumental timbre could teach some of his better-known peers a thing or two?

As to the Italian Gasparini's Through the Looking Glass variations, I could only imagine Alice seeing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and recoiling in embarrassment (as I did). Carl Vine's Descent - Metropolis the Workers' View married the violence of early Prokofiev with the professionalism of James Horner and fully engaged the attentions of Daniel Harding, who lunged from the page with unstinting zeal, fists clenched and mouthing silent screams. Harding's talents embraced the length and breadth of Hartke's all-American The Ascent of the Equestrian Balloon, a genuine "contest" piece, and full of challenges for members of the LSO. But I had expected Vine's professionalism to clinch the final vote. Still, Ravel failed competitions, and so did Brahms. What matters is that thousands had the chance to listen to and to think about new music, and one hopes that the next Masterprize (scheduled for November 2000) will engage an even wider public. One final thought. Just prior the concert, I was thumbing through some books at the Barbican Dillons when Ashkenazy rushed in and asked for the CD of Anthony Payne's speculative "Elgar Three". Now there's a piece with "the power to communicate and engage a broad range of music-lovers". And it's "new music", to boot... isn't it?

Rob Cowan