Jessica Duchen: Prestigious commissions come with a health warning

Related Topics

It's in the nature of commissioning a new piece of music that nobody knows how it will turn out until it is too late, but a Proms premiere is an especially dangerous undertaking. It presents unique challenges; and, in rising to them, composers sometimes trip up. Working in the warmth of prestige, for performance by a top-quality orchestra in a huge hall, there's an understandable temptation towards over-ambition or impracticality. Works might turn out lengthier than desired, or demand unusual, hard-to-find instruments, or fall foul of the place's size and acoustics. And when disasters occur, they do so very publicly.

In 2007, Sam Hayden's Substratum was truncated at short notice with only three of seven movements performed. A slip in the programme told the audience simply that it had "proved impossible" to prepare the whole thing. Another case was John Casken's Symphony No 1, Broken Consort, spanning more than half-an-hour and including a Gypsy ensemble, cimbalom and all, among the orchestra. Its 2004 premiere received plenty of advance publicity and critical acclaim, but it still awaits another outing.

Last year the much-admired Cello Concerto by Unsuk Chin proved to have considerable staying power. With a devoted soloist to champion it (in Chin's case, the cellist Alban Gerhardt), a fine new concerto has a particularly strong chance of gaining a foothold on the concert circuit. So, too, does any work that is co-commissioned with other orchestras: if three different orchestras in three different countries chip in, each giving three performances, that piece receives considerable exposure.

Nevertheless, an aura of glamour hovers around the first presentation of, so to speak, virgin music. Afterwards it dissipates; and unless a composer is as popular as John Adams or Steve Reich, the word "premiere" is more likely to put off than attract the audience.

That's because, even if closer scrutiny reveals otherwise, there's still a widespread perception among concert-goers that a typical Proms commission is the work of an earnest, young, white, male Brit in thrall to Birtwistle, Britten or Berg. How often have we sat there anticipating a new piece only to hear, yet again, instrumental strata emerging in succession from the space in dissonance after gaping dissonance, topped by a vainly poetic title? We watch our neighbours roll their eyes towards the hall's acoustic mushrooms and mutter, "One of those".

It's interesting to look at those in the past who have not received Proms commissions. Composers as contrasting as Birtwistle, Richard Rodney Bennett, Malcolm Williamson and Peter Maxwell Davies have had numerous return invitations. But Benjamin Britten, considered the world over as the UK's greatest composer and today often viewed as a reference point for the "establishment", wrote his Piano Concerto for the Proms of 1938, where it was conducted by Sir Henry Wood. Nothing more. They never commissioned anything from him.

Commissioning music always involves trial and error. Most new pieces are bound to disappear; that has always been the case. But to find new masterpieces it's essential to keep taking the risks. This year's commissions include works by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Robin Holloway, Alissa Firsova, a violin concerto for Alina Ibragimova by Huw Watkins and a Last Night piece from Jonathan Dove, among others. Will there be some transformations? There's only one way to find out.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Glazier

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist historic buildi...

Recruitment Genius: Office and Customer Services Manager

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small but very busy (and f...

Recruitment Genius: Portfolio Administrator

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has become known a...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer - Midlands

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Builders have been taking on apprentices and even turning to sources such as army veterans for workers  

The march of the apprentices

Chris Blackhurst
Mukesh Singh, who appears in the film, was sentenced to death for his part in the 2012 rape  

The depressing similarity between the Delhi rapist Mukesh Singh and Oxford's Police

Sophia Cannon
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot