Gramophone guest blog

To find some of the best new music we must look beyond the familiar names

David ButcherTue 25th November 2014

The good news is that there are a lot of composers out there. The bad news: much of their music will go unheard

Two years ago, Britten Sinfonia launched OPUS, a scheme to uncover hidden composing talent in the UK. We didn’t know what we would find, but were interested to explore new music that lay beneath the radar; the distinctive musical voices that exist beyond the lucky few composers who are taken up by music publishers. 

The good news is that there are a lot of composers out there. The bad news: much of their music will go unheard.

Each season, OPUS offers a composer who is not represented by a music publisher a commission to write a new work for the orchestra’s award winning ‘At Lunch’ series in Norwich, Cambridge and Wigmore Hall, London. All applications are judged ‘blind’ by a panel of Britten Sinfonia musicians, led by Britten Sinfonia Principal Piano and composer, Huw Watkins; shortlisted composers are invited to workshop their compositions with Britten Sinfonia musicians, with the winner selected following this process. 

To date, an incredible 560 unrepresented composers have answered our call to arms, with, as Britten Sinfonia Leader Jacqueline Shave notes, some ‘amazing, clear voices coming through’. With no upper age limit, applications have been broad both in age and experience, with school-aged children and retired teachers taking their place alongside student and professional composers, including some with a range of unexpected talents (for example, a composer/barista; composer/rock climber). Submitted works, many of extremely high quality, have demonstrated an astounding artistic range supporting a dynamic plurality which makes this such an exciting time for new music.

Both the first two OPUS winners have been young composers: 23-year-old Ryan Latimer’s OPUS2013 winning work was premiered in April 2013; 24-year-old Patrick John Jones’s specially commissioned wind quintet will open Britten Sinfonia’s 2014/15 ‘At Lunch’ season at the end of November. The shortlist for OPUS2015, which has just been announced, once again includes a healthy contingent of young talent (two thirds of the 12 shortlisted composers are aged 30 or under) and the wealth of untapped young talent is one of the most heartening aspects of the scheme. The workshops for shortlisted applicants (young and old) are of particular importance offering the composer a rare chance to hear work played and discussed by some of the best in the business. Composer Hannah Dilkes, shortlisted for OPUS2014 stresses the importance of the ‘proper sense of collaboration’ in the process. ‘It feels very real, not like your doing it all by yourself.’ 

My suspicion is the number and range of composers we have unearthed is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a tantalizing prospect, not least because it suggests that the seeds of new music are budding in all corners of the country. We need to find more ways to help them grow a little stronger. What OPUS suggests is that we should look – and listen – a little more carefully and extend the way in which we engage with composers; there is no shortage of creative musical talent, it’s opportunity that’s lacking. 

Patrick John Jones’s quintet, ‘Uncanny Vale’ will be performed in Britten Sinfonia at Lunch concerts in Norwich, Cambridge and London (28 November, 2 & 3 December). Details at www.brittensinfonia.com

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014