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

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album