Masterprize 2003: The Gala Final – 30 October

El Khoury
Les fleuves engloutis
You Must Finish Your Journey Alone
Rainbow Body
Symphony No.6, Op.60
Einstein’s Violin

London Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Harding

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 October, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

It hardly seems two years since Masterprize rolled into town for its second biannual instalment. This year’s event seems to have proceeded much as before: six pieces under 15 minutes in length, being heard at the ’gala final’ – once again performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Harding who, on this occasion, seems to have taken to heart a directive uttered by Bob Dylan to The Hawks at the Free Trade Hall in May 1966, and projected everything with maximum impact. A brief description of each work, in the order in which they were heard, now follows. Les fleuves engloutis (Eternal Rivers) is Bechara El Khoury’s homage to “love between peoples and peace in our world”. Of the five sections, ’Fog’ provided a portentous opening, and then ’Song of Silence’ offered a hint of expressive restraint before the all too blatant climax. ’Alert’ depicted danger by blandly Respighian means, which ’Struggle’ intensified more through emotional rhetoric than musical logic. ’Song of the Rivers’ offered a closing paean to love and freedom of brow-furrowed earnestness. Laudable sentiments throughout – to which, sadly, the piece barely began to do justice.

The tango’s embodying of conflicting emotions has been apparent at least since Piazzolla blazed the trail, and Arturs Maskats takes up the idea with alacrity in Tango. Imagine the rhythmic energy of Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine synthesised with the fervid atmosphere of Schnittke’s (K)ein Sommernachtstraum, and you get the general picture. It’s an effective piece, not without subtlety or introspection, if suggesting that Maskats’s future lies in the film studio rather than the concert hall. But then, a Latvian remake of The Third Man set in Argentina might be just what we need!

Pointedly, Anton Plate provided no programme note for You Must Finish Your Journey Alone – but the quizzical tone of the work suggests a skewed existential backdrop to a varied sequence of bizarre but distinctive happenings. In particular, those passages of what appeared to be Styrofoam shuffling and the frequent if covert references to what sounded like the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet managed to be thought-provoking without drawing undue attention to themselves. A quality not in short supply with Plate, whose music definitely warrants closer investigation.

From the perspective of today’s listeners, Christopher Theofanidis’s Rainbow Body would seem to have it all. A chant by Hildegard von Bingen – musician, mystic and Medieval earth-mother remade for the modern age – is guarantee of her would-be-beneficent presence, though the combination of numerous Pärt-isms with a post-Bernstein outlook is not enough to promote coherence of design and continuity of thought beyond a merely superficial level. And how the motif from the lead into the reprise from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony found its way into the piece is anyone’s guess.

What a composer who dedicated his First Symphony to Elliott Carter is doing in a Masterprize final is a question some may have been asking. Admittedly that was 20 years ago, and no one could now accuse Nicolas Bacri’s Sixth Symphony of overtly Modernist tendencies. Yet his one-movement piece fulfilled its brief with no mean assurance: those who appreciate Honegger and early Bernd Alois Zimmermann, with a nod to Dutilleux in more restrained passages, will not have been disappointed. If it lacks a strong profile, Bacri’s music balances heart and brain to a degree not often evident in tonight’s concert.

Finally, a good old-fashioned scherzo – courtesy of Robert Henderson, whose Einstein’s Violin is inspired by the great man in both his scientific and musical guises. Aesthetically, this is the sort of music that American composers from Barber to Adams have accomplished with ease. Henderson doesn’t bring anything new to the mix, and his alternation of breathless motoric writing with full-on expressiveness does grow a little predictable, but the work has a resourcefulness not always found in such pieces (such as Carter Pann’s hideous SLALOM, which threatened to win Masterprize 2001).

Following the customary intermission, during which filmed images of Mariss Jansons and Vladimir Ashkenazy proved less memorable than presenter Nathalie Wheen directing her hesitant continuity to the audience directly in front of her, a gathering of mainly distinguished personages assembled on stage to hear this year’s Masterprize result – determined equally by the jury and an ostensibly world-wide audience, including those in the hall – awarded, not wholly unexpectedly, to Christopher Theofanidis. His presence at the forefront of new music in the years to come is greatly to be anticipated!

Seriously, it is all too easy to ’slag off’ Masterprize – its welcome aspiration to bring today’s music to today’s audiences (not to mention a lively educational programme) outweighed by the overbearing pretentiousness of its image and set-up. Moreover, the philanthropic aspect (privately financed as it is) has to be questioned, given the attempt at persuading publishers to waive rental and mechanical payments on the performances and recordings (featured on the cover-mount CD included with the October issue of Gramophone) of the pieces heard in the final, depriving their composers of income from what – at least for some – will have been a rare performance by a top-league orchestra.

In the planning no doubt underway for Masterprize 2005, more thought needs to be given on the intent of the competition, and if those in charge can at least begin to distinguish between music whose virtues may emerge over time and music that they think a stereotypical audience of today will want to hear, then it can only be a good thing for contemporary music and composers in the years to come. And, to repeat a plea from two years ago, let’s have fewer pieces and of longer duration: after all, haven’t new orchestral commissions been reduced to ’curtain-raiser’ status for too long?

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