A noisy night at the opera: Esther Oxford reports on a clash that is looming between traditionalist music lovers and avant-garde rivals at Covent Garden

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The Independent Online
THE CLIMAX of a heated musical debate is about to erupt in the Royal Opera House Covent Garden this week. Booing, hissing, and public griping are expected to greet the curtain drop when Gawain opens on Thursday.

On one side are lovers of modern classical music, in particular its avant garde, symbolised by Gawain's composer, Sir Harrison Birtwistle.

On the other are those who wish for the return of the more traditional melodic aspects of symphony and opera, represented by two self-styled - and unrecognised - geniuses. Frederick Stocken, 26, is a composer, and fogeyish leader of The Hecklers. His friend Keith Burstein, 36, also a composer, leads the Romantic Futurists.

Together they plan to deride the work of the avant garde in general, and of Sir Harrison in particular, with the twin tactics of public heckling from Mr Stocken and reasoned argument from Mr Burstein. 'A lot of this 'new' work is the most appalling rubbish,' Mr Stocken said. 'It is very much a case of the emperor's new clothes - no one has been prepared to stand up and say how awful it is.'

To illustrate his loathing for Sir Harrison's much-acclaimed work, Mr Stocken will be bringing a herd of young fogeys along to boo the performance. This will be the start of a series of 'performance' protests aimed at composers stuck in the avant garde.

'We want to see a return of classical music with popular appeal, not this arch-modernist stuff which gives you a migraine,' Mr Stocken said.

The Romantic Futurists have the same aim, but different strategy: they want to be the voice of reason. 'I don't want to tar myself with the same brush as these Hecklers,' said Mr Burstein, from his flat in Balham, south London, this week. 'I want a democratic musical establishment which appreciates beautiful, warm, contemporary works.'

Turning the argument on to a somewhat personal plane, he added: 'As a left-voting, white, middle-class liberal, interested in Western traditions and 19th century music I can't get a look in with the music establishment. I deserve air time and platform space as a young composer of some sophistication. I want to challenge the monopoly on music and offer an alternative language.'

The Royal Opera House was unimpressed by the criticism. 'If Mr Fred-bon-wocken or whatever his name is wants simple, warm tunes he should go along to a musical,' said a spokeswoman. Both composers were self-publicists, she said, though the Royal Opera House was grateful for the attention.

Sir Harrison's opera is based on the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Covent Garden did not want to reveal the cost of mounting it, saying it was 'the same as any revival'. But ticket prices are lower than usual: the most expensive costs pounds 48 compared with pounds 118 for a future revival of Figaro. Why the difference? 'We don't want to play to an empty house.'

The language of the avant garde alienates the average listener, said Mr Burstein, who used to play it himself, before he 'faced up to my own mortality' and gave it up. 'It sounds ugly and unpleasant. Few people get any enjoyment from it.

'When it was first introduced at the start of this century it was genuinely new. Experimental music produced a lot of energy - both creative and intellectual. But it has gone on too long. It has not moved on. We are at the fag-end of the experimental era now.'

Instead of acknowledging this, the music establishment propagated the myth that once the audience 'understands what the composer is trying to do' it would appreciate the music. But for Mr Burstein there is nothing to appreciate. 'Avant garde music is not original and audiences should not be afraid to say as much. I think it is elitist and limited. The establishment's infatuation with it is peverse.'

Michael White, music critic of the Independent on Sunday says it is not correct for Mr Berstein to suggest that the only way to get music performed is to conform to the avant garde. 'John Tavener, one of our most successful contemporary musicians is not remotely avant garde, nor is Gavin Bryars. There is every opportunity for composers of quality to be performed.

'In the fifties and sixties there was a real problem. If composers did not write 'alienating' music they did have trouble being heard. What Mr Stocken and Mr Burstein need to wake up to is that there has already been a reaction. What is being written now is the reaction to the avant garde.'

Another music critic for a national newspaper who did not wish to be named went a little further. 'I suggest Mr Stocken and Mr Burstein give up composing altogether,' he said.

'I went to listen to hear a requiem written by Keith Burstein for the victims of the Marchioness boat disaster. He went round saying that the BBC Symphony Orchestra was interested in perfoming it. When we got there the orchestra consisted of a handful of friends. It was breathtakingly appalling.

'I also heard a piece by Mr Stocken called the Cathedral. He had sent out leaflets claiming to be 'Britain's most backward-looking composer'. He thought it was a wonderful joke. There was polite applause at the end but the piece died an instant death. The audience was aghast at how awful it was.'

(Photograph omitted)

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