Opera + Classical Music Reviews

2007 British Composer Awards @ Barbican Centre, London

26 October 2007

‘Twas a boozy Friday night at the Barbican as the shortlist for the 2007 British Composer Awards was announced.

Any work by any composer can be entered into the competition, as long as it has received its premiere in this country.

Over 300 entries were received this year, to be judged by a panel of sixty. The shortlist categories are varied – Chamber, Orchestral, Vocal et al. – and one category, the International Award, is a new addition.

The names on the shortlist are familiar and not so familiar. Works by Julian Anderson, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Jonathan Dove and Harrison Birtwistle are all to be found; the names of Martin Suckling and Howard Jones, among others, are not so familiar, and perhaps this competition will aid these composers’ path through the mountainous music business.

I’m rooting for Thomas AdsTevot in the Orchestral category. Back in March, I noted “for all the sweat-inducing technicalities of the work, the humanity, warmth and sincerity of expression are what stand out. Halfway through, woodwind solos are draped from the violin line in patterns of elaborate, occasionally delirious, counterpoint. Ads’s compact melodic cells frequently blossom into extended motifs: the counterpoint condenses into a lush melody on the strings, echoing either Mahler or Morricone and with dangerous dissonance seared into the fabric… musically it is a triumph”. I shall also be interested to see how Lynne Plowman‘s House of the Gods fares: I wrote, after its London premiere, that the work is “a perplexing concoction of elements… an air of surprise floated around the Linbury”. The awards ceremony will take place on 5th December at Glaziers Hall, London.

Following the shortlist announcement on Friday, John Adams conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Barbican Hall. Ending the concert was a selection of choruses from Adams’ second opera The Death of Klinghoffer. When they don’t lull one to apathetic wonderment, Adams’ endless, crescendoing motivic, rhythmic repetitions can prove tiring, especially when removed from their theatrical context as was the case here. In these brief works, the melismatic vocal writing seems alternately overstated and unnecessarily arduous for the singers. In the Night Chorus, all that helter skelter low-lying coloratura cruelly stretches the basses to their furthest limit in search of a fleeting, arguably superficial audience high.

Even this admirable performance, featuring the faultless, radiantly-toned BBC Symphony Chorus and drawing from Adams the most idiomatic conducting that I have heard from him, could not dispel the suspicion that this is music brimming with sound and fury, signifying next to nothing. No, it was Britten’s Symphony for Cello that proved the greatest success, with Alban Gerhardt a lyrical, passionate and fearless soloist, making a fine case for this difficult but sadly underplayed work.

The 2007 British Composer Awards shortlist:

Chamber – Brian Ferneyhough: String Quartet No. 5, Simon Holt: 4 Quarters, Patrick Nunn: Escape Velocity

Choral – Julian Anderson: Heaven is Shy of Earth, Francis Grier: The Passion of Jesus of Nazareth, Mark-Anthony Turnage: A Relic of Memory

Community or Educational Project – Stephen Deazley: Thrie Heids, Jonathan Dove and Matthew King: Hear Our Voice, Edward McGuire: Ring of Strings

Instrumental Solo or Duo – George Benjamin: Piano Figures, Harrison Birtwistle: Crowd, Jonathan Harvey: Run Before Lightning

International Award – Derek Bermel: Soul Garden, Brett Dean: Wolf-Lieder, Wolfgang Rihm: Verwandlung

Liturgical – Richard Causton: Jesu, sweete sone dear, Gabriel Jackson: Orbis patrator optime, Tarik ORegan: Threshold of Night

Making Music Award – Howard Jones: The Illusion of Progress, Joanna Lee: whippoorwill, Martin Suckling: Mosaic

New Media – Jem Finer: Score for a Hole in the Ground, Janek Schaefer: Vacant Space

Orchestral – Thomas Ads: Tevot, James Dillon: Piano Concerto Andromeda, Jonathan Harvey: Body Mandala

Stage Works – Jonathan Dove: The Enchanted Pig, Stephen McNeff: Tarka the Otter, Lynne Plowman: House of the Gods

Vocal – David Horne: Lifes Splinters, Oliver Knussen: Requiem – Songs for Sue, David Matthews: Terrible Beauty

Wind Band or Brass Band – David Horne: Waves and Refrains, Edwin Roxburgh: An Elegy for Ur, Gwilym Simcock: Lichfield Suite

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