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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Waiting for a gift

Throughout the 20th century -- and especially over the last forty years -- opportunities for new music to be presented to an audience by well-known and highly proficient performers within standard concert and recital series have increased and become plentiful. There seems little need for any young composer to fear the lack of a platform for new pieces. Gradually over the century, and in many parts of the US and Europe, societies devoted to the performance and promotion of new music have operated successfully, even though some were short lived. There are national and international festivals of contemporary music, awards and prizes for new compositions, and funding bodies, trusts and charities willing to support performances and introduce fresh names to the already vast list of composers currently making music through the world.

But does it all achieve anything more than bring to our notice more mediocrity? Such smooth rides to public exposure can now bypass the customary processes of 'natural selection'. There are few people vetting the flow of material through the pipeline that dare to adopt a measure of quality craftsmanship -- or even have anything more than political instincts to guide their selection. First performances are legion; subsequent performances rare.

What new pieces are there that cry out to be performed many times? Are there still performers with charisma, influence and (are we being over optimistic?) highly sensitive musical perception who will insist on playing a new work repeatedly that they really believe to add something worthy to our rich musical coffers? Are there concert managements that will let them? Are there audiences that are willing to follow such enthusiasms? Much will be the decision of those voters -- the audiences.

But does not this invasion of new names make their new music all the more disposable, standing, as it must, against old war horses that have withstood the storms of centuries and come through triumphant? They are familiar old friends, delightful to play, pleasing to hear, and commercially far more useful for they take little rehearsal time. The fact that some of them are as mediocre as most of the new pieces is perhaps forgivable, for it is a familiar mediocrity.

Copyright © 31 March 2005 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK


From: Alistair Hinton, UK

Waiting for the Gift of a Provocative Thought

Patric Standford's latest gift, 'Waiting for a Provocative Thought' (pardon my mental dyslexia) illustrates something of a double-edged sword -- or rather a blessing in disguise -- or maybe even a poisoned chalice -- in that the benefit to individual living composers of increased opportunities for new music performance is to some extent compromised by the fact that there are now so very many more composers seeking -- and getting -- such opportunities.

How the 'vetting process' for new works can be improved is hard to establish, since his question 'what new pieces are there that cry out to be performed many times?' is amenable only to subjective answers and even then only over a decently long period of time for there to be any likelihood that they become meaningful. Furthermore, he writes of 'war horses' -- yet one has only to consider that, in pre-Barbirolli Britain, public performances of Mahler's symphonies were rarer than jokes in the Bible (thank you, Norman Douglas) whereas nowadays all those works are so often played that they almost qualify as 'war horses'. Likewise, Busoni's monumental Piano Concerto had to wait some 65 years before it was first released on a commercial recording, yet, in little more than half that time since, the total number of commercial recordings of that work has almost reached a score. Changes in public taste and fortune are all very well, but no one would suggest that the fact that these works 'cry out to be performed many times' today but did not do so in the first half of the last century means that the works themselves have somehow changed!

A BBC Radio 3 audience poll recently awarded its mandate to Payne's Visions and Journeys; whilst Tony Payne's scores are not exactly known for high-modernist complexicist obscurantist obfuscation, this splendidly imaginative work is by no means an obvious piece of comfortable listening either, yet it clearly caught the imagination of a majority of the voters -- all members of the listening public. This is not a common form of 'vetting', of course, but not an uninteresting or irrelevant one either.

Mr Standford bemoans the risk of undue exposure of 'mediocrity' resulting from the plethora of new music platforms today. The more pieces that get performed, the more 'mediocrity' is indeed likely to be revealed -- but only on a merely quantitative basis. 'Mediocrity' would still likely rear its head even if new music performance opportunities were restricted by what Mr Standford calls a kind of 'natural selection' process; that said, I remain unconvinced that such a process of 'natural selection' per se ever existed in reality.

Mr Standford opines of standard repertoire 'favourites' that 'they are familiar old friends, delightful to play, pleasing to hear, and commercially far more useful for they take little rehearsal time'; I'll remember that next time I listen to Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, Shostakovich's 4th Symphony, Messiaen's Turangalīla-Symphonie -- all firmly established repertoire favourites ...

When Mr Standford's departing gesture takes the biscuit by claiming of standard repertoire 'favourites' 'the fact that some of them are as mediocre as most of the new pieces is perhaps forgivable, for it is a familiar mediocrity', he reminds me, albeit obliquely and perhaps unwittingly, what day it is today ... [posted 1 April 2005]




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