Now is the time to enjoy the diversity and attractiveness of contemporary music

John MetcalfWed 5th March 2014

The Vale of Glamorgan Festival is dedicated to promoting the very best new music, writes the festival's artistic director

Being a composer has, of course, its positives and negatives. Regrettably, for most, perhaps all, of my life the presence in a concert programme of a work by a living composer has tended to be more of a threat than a promise. That very work may have had the effect of reducing the audience numbers by a fifth, perhaps even as much as a third or a half. Furthermore, I could be unlucky and meet an audience member in the interval who ventures the opinion that music ended with Brahms, Beethoven or Bach, perhaps even with Palestrina. I compose therefore I am not. I doubt anyone ever goes up to a doctor and says that medicine ended with Louis Pasteur or Alexander Fleming.

But it's not easy being an audience member either. In a contemporary gallery if you don't like the artwork your 'dwell time' in front of it may be brief. In a concert, faithful to the mores of 21st century capitalism, you've rented your seat for a couple of hours and it's not easy to leave. Unless ostentatiously. This can encourage the practice of turning up late, if the new work is on first, or prolonging your interval drink if it opens the second half. If you have taken your courage in both hands, your interval challenge could be a discussion with an enthusiast about the work that you so much disliked with the avoidable, but sneaking feeling that maybe it is you that is missing something.

Yes, contemporary music, for reasons we haven't got time to explore here, is truly - let's be kind and say - a niche interest. Intelligent, educated people are, on the whole, much more likely to be able to quote you the winner of the Turner Prize or some of the authors from the Booker shortlist than the 2013 winner of the Grawemeyer Award. (It was Dutch composer Michel van der Aa by the way). It's quite likely they have not even heard of the Grawemeyer Award.

Well that's the bad news; but there's an upside as well. Much of what we think of as modern music is in fact the music of mid-20th century Europe. The music of today is more varied and diverse. Happily – to my way of thinking – it is still in many different ways challenging but it is also, on occasion, dare one say, attractive. These  two things taken together make programming an event like the Vale of Glamorgan Festival an exciting opportunity. 

One key to the promotion of new music, paradoxically almost, is longevity. If you can build a tradition over five years, then try and plan for 10 and if you can do it for 10, aim for 25. If you can only do it for three, consider doing something else. It's more than 20 years now since the Vale of Glamorgan Festival metamorphosed into a Festival of living composers. I am a big fan of the loyal audience who have made the journey with us. They are informed and sensitive, ready to applaud a remarkable revelatory new work, quick to forgive the inevitable instances of misplaced artistic enthusiasm. Along with an innate generosity of spirit they have a perspective and a confidence born of experience over time.

Planning for a Vale of Glamorgan Festival generally begins in the same way with the choice of (usually) two featured composers. Complementary or contrasting threads spread out from this. It seems odd to have to emphasize the idea but we work on a 'repertoire first' basis. The choice of performing artists follows this in the way that the ground and first floors are built on the foundations of the building. We focus on performers who already have a commitment to contemporary music and who, ideally, are associated with the work of our featured composers. We work with key partners nationally and internationally to develop unique programmes, programmes that by and large can only be heard in that form at this Festival.

We are not close to a metropolis (sorry Cardiff), one reason why this is not intended to be a festival for the specialist alone, rather an opportunity for the intelligent, interested listener to resume contact with the development of music history. While an important part of our focus is on art form development we are also interested in audience development. Not the audience development of the 'warm-bodies-never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width' type but audience development that includes enhancing the quality and adventurousness of the audience's choices as well as the actual number of attendees. Our hope is that over time there will be a sea change in people's approach to contemporary art music and that we will be part of that.

John Metcalf's picture

John Metcalf

John Metcalf is a composer and artistic director of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival which takes place annually in May. His seventh opera based on Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood receives its world premiere in Swansea in April.

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