When female composers settled a score
At the Proms and elsewhere, classical music embraced a more acceptable approach to equality, finds Ivan Hewett
Every orchestra, venue and performing organisation marked in some way the anniversary of the end of the First World War. Some of the offerings were routine: we heard an awful lot of Holst’s The Planets and Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. Others were thrillingly imaginative, such as a piece by the German experimental theatremaker Heiner Goebbels entitled Everything that Happened and Would Happen, which premiered on a disused industrial site in Manchester.
Britten Sinfonia’s tour was another centenary event that stood out from the crowd, falling just before the anniversary of the Armistice. Nico Muhly’s setting of soldiers’ letters home was interwoven with First World War poetry and music by composers on both sides.
A more radical approach to soldiers’ words from the Front was taken by Anna Meredith in Five Telegrams, a music-and-imagery piece made with video wizards 59 Productions for the opening of the BBC Proms. Refusing to milk the missives for their emotional power, Meredith instead offered a musical parallel for the way in which Morse code and the overbearing military censor altered their meaning.
Her piece found a nice symmetry in the Last Night concert, which premiered another First World War-themed piece, also composed by a woman, Roxanna Panufnik.
Which brings me to the year’s other big theme: 2018 felt like the year that women finally shouldered their way centre-stage in classical music. This was partly as a result of the art form belatedly undergoing its own #MeToo moment. At the tail end of 2017, both James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera, and conductor Charles Dutoit were accused of sexually harassing female musicians (both deny it). That opened a floodgate of further accusations, most following the same pattern. Accusers came forward with allegations of harassment and assault, which they said they’d been bottling up for years; the accused issued denials through lawyers then disappeared from view as their workplaces rushed to suspend or sack them. As the year ends, there’s an eerie silence on the topic, as the legal process grinds on.
On a happier note, there was a surge of female composers into prominence in the programmes of orchestras, venues and festivals. This felt like a triumph for Keychange, a Europe-wide initiative led by British institutions to achieve gender parity in the commissioning of new works by 2022. The results so far shouldn’t be exaggerated: a recent survey looking at a sample of 1,445 concerts in 2018 revealed that around 95 per cent of the music was composed by men.
Still, one sensed a difference, thanks in no small part to the Proms, which was ahead of the game in giving more than half of its commissions to female composers. The fact that 2018 was the centenary of women’s suffrage, and of the death of the gifted composer Lili Boulanger, put wind in their sails.
That aside, it was a somewhat lacklustre Proms season. The European Union Youth Orchestra gave a fine concert, tinged with the melancholy thought that it could well be the last Prom the orchestra gives with British players in its ranks. The Berlin Philharmonic gave two Järvi’s appalling mash-up of Handel’s immortal concerti grossi and his own banal minimalist tics made me want to scream. spellbinding performances under its new chief conductor-designate, Kirill Petrenko. Yet the Prom that sent everyone into giddy raptures came from the Russian orchestra Musica Aeterna and its charismatic conductor Teodor Currentzis, though for me his reinventions of Beethoven were wilfully eccentric as much as thrilling.
Throughout the year, two centenaries loomed especially large: those of Leonard Bernstein’s birth and Claude Debussy’s death. The Total Immersion Day devoted to Bernstein by the BBC did him proud; little-known gems such as the late piano piece Touches and the extravagant, wistful Songfest were given rapturous performances. Debussy was handsomely acknowledged too, especially on CD. There were several new recordings of his piano music, the best of them from young Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, and a wonderful recording of his orchestral pieces on authentic late-19th-century instruments from Les Siècles.
But anniversaries are an easy option for venue and orchestral managers in search of a peg on which to hang a programme.
Far better to invent a theme of one’s own. And, as so often, Kings Place led the way. Its series Time Unwrapped, which explored music’s power to bend and alter time, reminded us throughout the year that music connects us to the deepest mysteries of life.