Play it again: helping new music find an audience beyond the premiere
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
The premiere of a new work by a contemporary composer is the stuff of music headlines. Yet, for all the features, reviews and warm wishes that greet a premiere, a second or third performance is often far from guaranteed. And there’s a wealth of brilliant contemporary works that are crying out to be heard again.
Over the last decade, the Royal Philharmonic Society and BBC Radio 3, through their ENCORE project, have been breathing new life into exceptional contemporary music that deserves to be better known and more widely heard. We started with the orchestral repertoire, moved onto something a little smaller in ENCORE Chamber, and have just announced a list of seven choral works which will feature live in concert in 2016/17, with broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 and associated creative learning projects to bring audiences closer to the works and their composers. The list includes concert and liturgical works, pieces for professional singers and works easily suited to amateur choirs, works for female and young voices, and for chamber choir and mass voices. None of the pieces have been performed since 2007, and three have not been heard for over 25 years.
The list we’ve announced is by no means obscure. In fact, it features works by some of the UK’s best-known composers: David Matthews; Robin Holloway; Robert Saxton; Jonathan Lloyd; Paul Patterson; Jonathan David Little and Oliver Knussen. Knussen’s only choral work, Frammenti da ‘Chiara’ for two female choirs, has been without a live performance since its premiere nearly 30 years ago. It’s a demonstration of the difficulty that even our most distinguished composers can experience in finding a regular place in the performance repertoire. And it’s a problem that is not specific to choral repertoire; ENCORE Chamber and ENCORE Orchestral gave new life to 21 neglected works, all by leading British composers, with many more fine pieces waiting in the wings. If anything, ENCORE is just chipping at the surface; scratch a little deeper and a treasure trove of untapped musical wonders lies waiting.
Choral music is enjoying a renaissance and in the UK, we boast some of the world’s finest professional choirs. There is also a huge interest in amateur music making, with an estimated 25,000 choirs all over the country – and whilst traditional repertoire predominates, many choirs embrace contemporary works, enjoying the dynamism of performing music that can be both unfamiliar and challenging. The chosen ENCORE Choral composers each bring something new to choral writing, and it is tremendously exciting to be able to bring these wonderfully inventive works to a new audience of listeners and performers.
If we want to build a future for music in the UK, new music needs to be seen more as part of the mainstream; something to be embraced in the same way as we celebrate new literature, theatre or art. BBC Radio 3, the BBC Proms and performing groups, all supported by the BBC licence fee, are the most significant commissioners of new musical works. The loss of that support for new music would not bear thinking about! We need to commission music and be creative and bold in programming it, not just on rare occasions or as an adjunct to more recognisable, traditional fare, but often, regularly, as second nature. Only by doing this can we ensure that great contemporary works don’t simply disappear from view after one or two outings, and make the most of some marvellous music that is waiting ‘off-stage’, ready to be rediscovered.