A young composer's first night at the Proms

Each year unknown composers share the billing with Mozart and Bach thanks to commissions from Radio 3

By Cahal Milmo
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:14

Alissa Firsova was sitting on a Eurostar train to Paris with her mother and two miniature bottles of vodka in February when her Blackberry pinged with an email. Upon opening it, the Russian-born composer found herself with a good reason to open her drink – she had become one of the youngest people to be commissioned to write music for the BBC Proms.

The world's largest festival of classical music, which brings aficionados of composers from Bach to Britten flocking in their thousands to the Royal Albert Hall and other venues, begins on Friday, boasting the sort of diverse and eclectic programme that has made it famous, with performances ranging from Mahler to a reprise of the 2008 Dr Who prom.

But while Bryn Terfel performing Wagner and Simon Rattle taking the Berlin Philharmonic through Beethoven's Symphony Number Four can be relied upon to draw the crowds, another aspect of the Proms is more often overlooked – its role as a forum for the world premieres of a succession of pieces of music, from five-minute minuets to full-blown symphonies, specially commissioned for the festival by BBC Radio 3.

At a rate of roughly ten new pieces a year, the Proms has, at a conservative estimate, featured the debut performances of at least 800 pieces of music since the practice began in earnest in the 1930s, bringing forward new work by composers from Gustav Holst to John Tavener and offering a unique opportunity for up-and-coming or unsung writers to reach the vast and popular audience garnered by the festival.

Such is the proliferation of compositions, from discordant concertos to a sonata played on goatskin drums, that has emerged under the banner of the Proms that many, if not most, have never been performed again.

But such issues will not bother Ms Firsova, 23, on 14 August, when the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performs her Bach Allegro, a five-minute, fast-paced reinterpretation of a sonata by the German maestro.

For the prodigious Briton (she is already on Opus 22 in her canon of major works), the email from Roger Wright, the controller of Radio 3 and organiser of the Proms programme, was the latest stage in a remarkable journey which saw her parents, who are also both composers, flee their native Russia for Britain when she was just three after being blacklisted in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Her mother, Elena, received a Proms commission in 1992, shortly after the family's arrival in Britain.

Sitting in the garden of the family home in St Albans, Ms Firsova told The Independent: "It is any composer's dream to write for the Proms. When I received the email, I could not believe it at first. I thought they had got the wrong email and it was meant for my mother. It is not something you expect when you are 23.

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"We had bought a couple of miniature bottles of vodka to have a drink on the evening train to Paris for a recital, so we could open them for a celebratory drink.

"It was the best news of my life so far. It is rare for composers to receive commissions – there are so many pieces written in history that maybe have never been heard by the composer in their lifetime. So just to hear your piece live even once is already enough. For that performance to be in the Royal Albert Hall for the Proms by the Royal Philharmonic, well, it will be a very special thing."

She set aside a month to produce the work, using a computer to compose and score the piece before showing it to her parents. Ms Firsova said: "I've always been very sure about what I want to write and found it difficult to show my parents, or anybody, something before I've finished it. But I also take on board what they say. In this case I was delighted because they were very happy with it when I showed them."

The composer, who first wrote music when she was six, won the BBC Proms Young Composer award when she was 14 and is also an accomplished concert pianist and conductor; she joins a long and illustrious list of those who have received a portion of Radio 3's annual commissioning budget, which currently stands at £350,000 or a modest average of £8,750 for a piece of music that can take anything up to two years or more to write. Some Proms debuts – James MacMillan's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, performed in 1990, or Tavener's 1989 cello work The Protecting Veil, have gone on to become part of the global repertoire of contemporary classical music.

But despite the undoubted prestige of being approached to write for the Proms, and the energy devoted to providing the finished product, the fate of much of the work is that it is rarely performed again beyond a rapturous premiere in the Albert Hall.

One music publisher told The Independent: "There should be no underestimating the importance of the work that the BBC does in commissioning these pieces – it helps keep classical music alive. But it is rather like R&D at a record label – you end up with 90 per cent of material that is good but goes nowhere and only 10 per cent that is going to go on and travel the world."

Others highlight the value, nonetheless, of the Proms in widening the appeal of modern music. Composer John Woolrich, 55, who has produced three Proms commissions, said: "The great appeal of the Proms is that it is a unique opportunity to hit a broad, general audience. You do get people scratching their heads and a group of Japanese tourists in the front row consulting their programmes to see what on Earth is going on, but that is part of the joy of it. I don't think Proms commissions have any lower a chance of being picked up and played again than any other new commission."

History is littered with examples of composers whose works were rubbished at the time of their initial performance only to be rediscovered as great classics, often after their death.

Following a performance at the 1903 Proms of Mahler's First Symphony, now considered one of the great pieces of 19th century music, the critic of The Times wrote: "It is, in fact, quite impossible, however willing one may be, to find any genuine good point in the symphony, which is a work commonplace and trite to an almost infantile degree, contains no germ of real inventive ability and is not even well scored."

With a remit to commission 40 pieces of new music a year that makes it the biggest commissioner of classical musical in the world, Radio 3 is forthright in its justification for its support of composers.

Mr Wright told The Independent: "There will always be commissions that immediately capture imaginations and others that do not. There is a risk when you commission a certain type of piece, that you end up with something different and you get a harsh judgment from the critics. But then that piece might get picked up and rediscovered. I don't want to make some of the same mistakes we have seen in history. I would rather run the risk of supporting a composer to carry on having the experience of writing music, with all the appropriate checks and balances, than not see these works created at all."

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