Masterprize 2001: The Gala Final – 10th October

Alastair King (UK, born 1967)
Hit The Ground (Running Running Running) (2000)
Anthony Iannaccone (USA, born 1943)
Waiting for Sunrise on the Sound (1999)
Qigang Chen (China, born 1951)
Wu Xing (The Five Elements) (1999)
Pierre Jalbert (USA, born 1967)
In Aeternam (2000)
Carter Pann (USA, born 1972)
SLALOM (1997-8)

London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 October, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The 1998 Masterprize final made a generally uninspiring impression. Andrew March triumphed with his neo-Baxian study Marine – a travers les arbres. Last December, his follow-on commission, A Stirring in the Heavenlies, suggested either the interim discovery of early-’70s Penderecki, or the intention to employ that style as a ’contemporary’ statement. The work was received largely with disinterest, by a smallish audience clearly preparing for the Beethoven concerto which followed.

So far, so indifferent. Would the 2001 Masterprize Final mark an improvement? Certainly the musical standard was higher, with the five entries arranged as a satisfying hour-long concert sequence, under the expert direction of Daniel Harding. As in 1998, he carried the evening with assurance, obtaining an uninhibited response from the London Symphony Orchestra.

Uninhibited aptly characterises the opening and closing items – curtain-raisers in aim and impact. Alastair King’s Hit The Ground (Running Running Running) suggested more than a cursory listen to the finale of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, its vivid rhythmic syncopations moving into a calmer central section, redolent of Malcolm Arnold with the irony ironed out, before the breezy close. Assured if unmemorable, though King could in time follow Jonathan Dove in making his mark as a composer of contemporary musicals with popular appeal.

Carter Pann conceived SLALOM as a real-time accompaniment to his local skiing run. Would that it had remained for his Walkman only! Lifting the opening phrase of the scherzo from Beethoven Nine is fine if you can do something positive with it. Instead, it non-segued into a perpetuum mobile whose underlying motion suggested Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter. The tailing-off as the downhill run is completed could have been an effective understatement, but resulted in pure kitsch. Pann might well be taken up by American orchestras keen for novelties – otherwise, he should go back to his Adams and Torke models, and lend an ear to Andre Previn’s recent Diversions, to put his effort in context.

The inner two pieces were tone poems of deeper import. Waiting for Sunrise on the Sound is Anthony Iannaccone’s recollection of a near-disastrous childhood fishing trip. The presence of Copland in the nocturnal opening is evident, while later stages recall the expressive feel of Barber – interestingly, the valedictory statements of his last years, such as Fadograph of a Yestern Scene and the Third Essay. Iannaccone’s piece does not approach this level of finesse yet; aside from its crude climax of resolution, it made one curious to hear some of the fifty works published over his lengthy career.

In Aeternam is Pierre Jalbert’s memorial to a niece who died at birth; the quiet, expressionless quality of the outer sections – fastidiously scored – augured well for the violent central outburst. Unfortunately, this quickly relapsed into heavily-overscored overkill, recalling the bludgeoning emotional rhetoric of recent orchestral works by Aaron Jay Kernis. Over the greater part of 14 minutes, it soon palled. Had Jalbert showed even a touch of restraint, and used the outer calm as more than just a framing device, the impact of his piece would have been that much greater.

Central to the quintet of finalists was Wu Xing by Qigang Chen, a suite evoking the Five Elements from ancient Chinese history, each piece an elegant miniature: the diaphanous textures of ’Water’; the vibrant Lutoslawskian gestures of ’Wood’; the capricious activity of ’Fire’; the expectant calm of ’Earth’, with its magically distanced recall of traditional music; and the playfulness of ’Metal’, bringing the sequence to an incisive conclusion. Well contrasted in and between each movement, and scored with unassuming conviction, this was the undoubted highlight of the evening.

In the event, the overall ’global’ vote went to Jalbert. His follow-up commission is awaited with interest, as is the 2004 Masterprize.

The present evening was certainly an event, with a fair number of ’A’- and ’B’-list celebrities, and musicians from the seven youth orchestras who had ’workshopped’ the finalist entries; the Bromley Youth and Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestras taking joint honours in the Masterprize Dearfield Education Prize. Moreover, judging from the fact that at least some of the talk at the post-concert reception was about the music, the event might be beginning to make its mark.

With such in mind, I would offer this thought to Masterprize’s founder and chairman, John McLaren: However intrinsically good they are, concert-openers will only ever be curtain-raisers. A Masterprize consisting of two or three ’second-half’-type pieces could really challenge public perceptions as to what contemporary music can be, and also test the composers’ creative potential. With much of the promotional and, presumably, financial wherewithal in place, why not tackle the alleged ’new music problem’ head on?

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