When fe­male com­posers set­tled a score

At the Proms and else­where, clas­si­cal mu­sic em­braced a more ac­cept­able ap­proach to equal­ity, finds Ivan Hewett

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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