What new and emerging composers need more than anything: a good commercial recording

Dan ShilladayFri 5th December 2014

Why the Berkeley Ensemble have founded the New Cobbett Prize for composition

When we set up the Berkeley Ensemble in 2008, our founding aim was to explore the lesser-known works of British chamber music. Initially, we envisaged our core repertoire as that of the first half of the 20th century, as personified by the composer who would eventually lend his name to the group, Lennox Berkeley. However, we soon began to feel that ‘lesser-known’ was a label that could equally apply to contemporary British music, too. In pondering how best to publicise the work of emerging talents – perhaps the least-known and most under-represented group of composers of all – we realised that a figure from our original, earlier repertoire might provide us with an inspiring example.

Walter Willson Cobbett was an Edwardian philanthropist whose name was closely associated with many of the eminent British composers of the early 20th century. A successful businessman and amateur violinist, he devoted as much time as he could spare to music making and founded a competition for young British composers in 1905. In the years that followed, he harnessed the mass media of the time to his cause, commercially printing the winning pieces, writing numerous newspaper articles and founding a periodical, the Chamber Music Supplement, to spread the word as far as possible. Of course, the mass media of the early 21st century is very different to that of Cobbett’s time. Young composers are adept at using social media to spread awareness of their own activities. And yet… why have so few concert-goers heard of even the most successful and Twitter-savvy of young composers?

Several years ago, the Berkeley Ensemble ran a composers’ workshop. Chatting in the bar after the event, the participants told us that reaching audiences beyond their friends and colleagues was difficult, despite the new means offered by social media. Whilst the numerous composition competitions were useful, the traditional cash prizes and one-off performances often offered only had a limited reach, leaving composers with an impressive CV but few, if any, new listeners. What they really needed was sustained exposure for their work, particularly that offered by commercial recording. 

From these experiences, we gradually formulated a plan to engage both the ensemble and the wider listening public with the work of today’s young composers: we would found a new Cobbett Prize. Like our predecessor, we’d do all we could to promote our winners on the concert platform, but our primary vehicle would be a commercial album. Despite the rapid changes that technology has recently wrought to the music industry, it seems that for classical listeners at least, recordings and their associated media are still extremely powerful. Perhaps unfamiliar new styles and languages benefit from the repeated listening that recordings facilitate. Perhaps ‘slow’ art forms such as classical music do not lend themselves to sound bites. Perhaps the primary audience for such music is simply not engaging with the latest media. Whatever the reason, I wish the widest possible success to our finalists and our resulting album which will be released in 2015 on Resonus Classics, the solely-digital label – our small concession to the cutting edge.

The New Cobbett Prize final takes place on Wednesday, December 10 at The Forge, Camden at 7:30pm.

The Berkeley Ensemble's debut recording, 'Clarion Call', was reviewed in the May 2014 issue of Gramophone. 

Video – introducing the Berkeley Ensemble:

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Dan Shilladay

Dan Shilladay is a viola player with the Berkeley Ensemble, he also performs with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the English Chamber Orchestra and the English Baroque Soloists

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