With the loss of a number of musicians, cultural icons such as Peter Shaffer, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Elie Wiesel and Alan Rickman, not to mention some seismic political events, many are describing 2016 as a year to forget.
Things did not start auspiciously, the first two weeks of January seeing the deaths of two of the most iconic musicians of our time, Pierre Boulez on 5th and David Bowie on 8th. Bowie’s death, as the 2016 turned from bad to worse, would become responsible for one of the year’s best memes:
In January I dismissed my mate's theory that David Bowie was the glue holding the universe together but I don't know man... I don't know...— Paul Bettany (@Paul_Bettany) June 24, 2016
22nd January would have been the 100th birthday of that other iconic French composer, Henri Dutilleux. The date marked the start of a year of celebrations in his honour.
February saw the inauguration of the new organ at the Philharmonie de Paris with a performance of Ligeti’s majestic Volumina and, at WNO, the premiere of Elena Langer’s opera Figaro Gets a Divorce, which speculated on events after Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. In terms of opera shenanigans, however, nothing could beat the real-life drama at English National Opera, the parlous situation seeming to be an obvious vindication of Micawber's advice regarding fiscal contentedness.
In March I could scarcely contain my delight at the chance to hear a half-remembered work from my youth, Grace Williams’ Missa Cambrensis. I am still hoping that it might be given a commercial release. That delight was tempered by more depressing news with the death of Peter Maxwell Davies on 15th. Given how ill he had been in 2013, however, we should be grateful for those extra works that flowed from his brief recovery, especially his magnificent Symphony No.10.
Maxwell Davies on his Symphony No. 10
April, indeed, saw evidence of the fecundity of Maxwell Davies’s last years, with the first performance of his Piano Sonata No. 2 on 27th (there would be other posthumous premieres, including his children’s opera The Hogboon in June). On 21st came the death of Prince. His prolific talent, like that of David Bowie, raised him above other pop musicians, justifying his inclusion here. Elsewhere the Dutilleux celebrations continued with a BBC Total Immersion Day at the Barbican and there were festivals of new music in Budapest and Witten, Germany. Meanwhile I was rather struck by a beguiling disk of choral music by Martin Smolka.
Few things in May seemed so bizarre as Valery Gergiev’s concert in Palmyra, so obviously was it a propaganda exercise for President Vladimir Putin. Such a celebration now looks obscenely premature, with Daesh recently retaking the ruins (not to mention the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Aleppo). Putin would become the bogeyman during the rest of the year, with many claiming he interfered with the US election and even the UK’s Brexit vote.
‘Pray for Palmyra’ concert conducted by Valery Gergiev
June started positively enough with a new crowdfunder from Dan Goren to launch Sounds Like Now, a magazine devoted to new music in the UK and Ireland. This ran throughout the month, eventually reaching its funding target in July. The first issue should be on its way in the New Year. There were a number of festivals, including at Aix-en-Provence and Cheltenham, important premieres such as Thomas Adès’s third opera at Salzburg, and a fabulous new Jonathan Harvey CD from St. John’s College, Cambridge. Then came the misery of Brexit on 23rd. I do not mean to be divisive with this description—I think its fair to say that the experience has not been such a lovely one for either Leavers or Remainers, the country feeling so horribly divided in the aftermath.
Given the seismic nature of this political event, in July C:T ran a straw poll of UK composers and also some arts organisations. The reaction to Brexit, not unexpectedly, was overwhelmingly negative, though there was at least one person prepared to give an alternative view. Given the depression of the situation I found solace in music, namely in a disk of trumpet music from Norwegian record label Lawo. Sadly the Norway option didn't seem so popular with politicians…
I made my own arguments in favour of that option in a post that eventually found it’s way to my website rather than on C:T—it felt a little too political to be here. Meanwhile the Proms continued apace, with 11 world premieres in August. It you click on the date links of my original Proms roundup you can go directly to these pieces on the BBC website, where they are still available. At the end of the month the old question of atonality in music reared it’s head, Jacques Attali making the absurd comment that it was akin to musical terrorism.
In September there were more rumblings of Brexit discontent, with two leading arts figures quitting the UK and a flag-waving dispute at the Last Night of the Proms. Given the climate I wondered whether it would be better to head to the continent for post-Proms blues-busting festivals in Germany, Norway, France and Poland. Also depressing, though not surprising, was the news that most new classical musicians are white and middle class, further evidence, should we need it, that not properly funding music tuition in schools is a mistake. There was a nice light news story at the end of the month, however, with the discovery that Alan Turing was also a musical pioneer, having created a device that produced the first computer-generated music.
First recording of computer music
On 3rd October Steve Reich turned 80, the event being marked in a number of events around the world. Mostly, however, the world seemed transfixed by the US elections and especially the Trump/Clinton televised debates. These were memorably turned into two musical parodies.
A luvvie singalong…
…and something rather more sinister…
I found myself thinking of home, both my adopted one here in Nice, where funding cuts had affected the Manca festival, and, with a greater sense of hiraeth, to Wales, where composer Peter Reynolds died suddenly on October 11th.
In probably the most significant tech news of the year, on 19th Steinberg released Dorico, a scorewriting package designed to compete with industry heavyweights Sibelius and Finale. 25th October saw the announcement of the British Composer Awards Shortlist and, much more seismically, on the same day C:T joined Twitter.
I kicked off November with a first look at Dorico, finding it full of promise but lacking significant features. I hope to share some more thoughts on it soon. Then, on 9th, came another political earthquake with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Time will tell whether this and Brexit really do signify the collapse of the liberal consensus, though from here in France, where it is probable that Marine Le Pen will make it to the run off for President next year, things are not looking good. On 21st, pioneering French composer Jean-Claude Risset died. He is credited with being one of the first composers to write an original work only using a computer.
On 2nd December we were treated to the ‘world premiere’ of Stravinky’s Funeral Song, an early work that was lost after its first performance. On 7th the British Composer Award winners were announced. I also rounded up some opportunities to hear new Christmas music. These have mostly passed, but there remains the opportunity to hear the first performance of Michael Berkely’s This Endernight, which will be performed by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge in their A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve.
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