Finnissy Prom

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I should be titling this post ‘Sibelius Prom’ as the concert in question featured the Great Finn’s 3rd and 4th Symphonies, excellently played by Ilan Volkov and the BBCSSO. But its exceptional event was a new work by Michael Finnissy. Reading the informative columnns by David Gutman which adorn the Proms programme books, it appears that this is only the third Finnissy Proms performance ever, and that therefore I personally have attended his entire Proms oeuvre which memorably included the world premiere of Red Earth in 1988.

Given that Finnissy is one of the most genuinely international of British composers (he held the distinguished position of President of the ISCM for many years) and has a world-wide host of ex-pupils and enthusiastic supporters, why this rather thin representation ? As the new work, Janne proved, he can write as ably for the orchestra as for the manifold other ensembles he has worked with. Ian Pace’s biographical note in the programme book suggested : “Finnissy has operated somewhat on the periphery of both the British new music establishment and the networks of European new music festivals, his work never fitting comfortably within the stylistic boundaries of either. It is well-nigh impossible to imagine him fashioning his work so as to be more amenable to these or other camps…yet his approach is far from that of an aloof genius’.

And it’s precisely the openness and creativity about everything (witness the flood of works he has written for COMA and amateur church musicians) which make him a treasured composer to quite a few people, but seems to confuse some others. Listening to the beautifully shaped instrumental lines of Janne, so sympathetic to the performers, I couldn’t in any way hear this as ‘outsider music’. It amused me watching this 1988 interview with Finnissy to hear the interviewer, Sue Cook, attempting to articulate this selfsame paradox; and it must be rather exhausting for the composer to hear us all still discussing it, several decades later.

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer

© Judith Weir, 2020