As one of the judges of this year’s (17th) BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers’ Competition, I hotfooted it to the Royal College of Music to hear the music we’d selected being played by the Aurora Orchestra. Would I enjoy hearing it? Even though I’ve been doing it for a long time, score-reading still feels like an inexact science.
I needn’t have worried. A complicated programme of twelve winners/highly commendeds (with four more winning works to come later on BBC Radio 3) yielded many pieces I’d gladly hear again. A sharply metrical wind trio (Nathaniel Coxon); a wild bassoon solo (Matthew Kitteringham); a witty miked-voice quartet (Anna Disley-Simpson); an exquisite cello melody (Harry Castle); a harmonically accomplished vocal setting (Sophie Sparkes); some very groovy written-out jazz (Harry Johnstone); the string quartet known to the jury as “the one with the tinfoil” (Edward Percival) – these were just some of my standouts, in excellent, enjoyable performances directed by Nicholas Collon. I should point out that all of these professional-sounding composers were at secondary school when they entered the competition, and several still have years to go before leaving for college.
“I needn’t have worried” – but I do, slightly. We have in the UK a generation of young composers many of whom are already unprecedently skilled at age 14 – thanks to now long-established outreach departments like the BBC’s, to the specialist music schools and the music colleges. (For instance, half of the young composers involved in this concert attend the Junior Royal Northern College of Music.) The worry was put in my head by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who simply remarked on last week’s BBC Proms Extra, “There are so many composers nowadays!” He was contrasting his own student days with his present experience as a teacher at the RAM . It’s something I have often remarked upon too. But I don’t think either of us would say “There are so many premieres/commissions/new music concerts nowadays”. My impression is that, compared with my own student era, there is less of all that. So unless some of our musical institutions change their ways (leafing through the coming orchestra season plans in London, I saw under the promising title Composers in Focus “the most extensive celebration of Rachmaninoff’s music ever undertaken”) where is all that amazing British composing talent going to go ?