Classical Music Wales John Cage in 1987 Image credit: SUSAN SCHWARTZENBERG/THE EXPLORATORIUM

Classical Music in Wales: Anniversaries and Icons

As budget cuts slowly remove the arts from our schools and society, Steph Power examines the position of classical music in Wales today.


‘I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.’

So said John Cage (1912-1992), the American composer and cultural icon, whose birth centenary was celebrated this year. Revered by many as one of the fathers of post-war experimentalism, Cage also managed to unite otherwise opposing traditionalists and avant-gardists who, together, scorned his music for its conceptual nature and lack of technical rigour; he was, said his one-time teacher Arnold Schoenberg, ‘not a composer, but an inventor – of genius’.

Perhaps, then, it says something intriguing about classical music in the UK today that John Cage is often treated as a kind of honorary national treasure and that he, in his centenary year, has been subsumed into what has become a real industry of cultural nostalgia. For we are, it seems, completely in thrall to the past; not only through an obsession with anniversaries (not to mention jubilees) but – much more tendentiously in classical music culture – through a seemingly unshakeable focus on music from distant eras rather than that of our own time; hence, in this end-of-year piece, notwithstanding my focus on events around 20th Century and contemporary composers, I find myself in an ironic position that Cage would no doubt have smiled at – in effect, looking back at what we chose to look back at during 2012.

Classical Music Wales John Cage in 1987 Image credit: SUSAN SCHWARTZENBERG/THE EXPLORATORIUM
John Cage in 1987
Image Credit: Susan Schwartzenberg/The Exploratorium

That said, as individuals and as a society, we need to be able to celebrate and to mourn; to pause and consider where we stand in relation to events. And anniversaries are also a way of gauging relative cultural value in terms of who we choose to remember and how – alas, for instance – the centenary of Cage’s brilliant but lesser-known compatriot, the experimentalist Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997), seems to have been passed over entirely in Wales – along with celebrations of Schoenberg’s own seminal work of music theatre Pierrot lunaire – whilst the 150-year birth anniversaries of Claude Debussy and Frederick Delius that enthralled BBC Proms and other audiences elsewhere in the UK were also given less attention here (albeit thankfully in the latter case – notwithstanding the advocacy of Tasmin Little and Julian Lloyd-Webber with his Violin and Cello Concertos at July’s Fishguard International Music Festival).

Regarding Cage, it was the Bangor New Music and Gregynog Festivals which, most notably in Wales, chose to mark his life and work with concerts in March and June respectively. In Bangor, a selection of his earlier pieces was combined with other works inspired by the Fluxus movement to which he was central. More imaginatively, at Gregynog’s National Museum of Wales concert, the experimental harpist Rhodri Davies revealed surprising links between Venice, Cage (his piece Sounds of Venice) and the Gregynog’s founders (one hundred years since they first started collecting paintings of Venice by Whistler, Monet and Sickert). John Cage would, one suspects, have relished both occasions.

Closer to home, but on quite another aesthetic planet, lies the music of Pembrokeshire-born composer Daniel Jones (1912-93) who would also have turned one hundred this year. Jones may lack international stature – and his music is yet to truly touch a nerve at home, falling in the cracks between traditional and modernist – but his was an important and substantial Welsh voice, including thirteen symphonies and eight string quartets, the last unfinished at his death. Between them, BBC National Orchestra of Wales and July’s Gower Festival (for whom he was long-standing Festival President) sought to bring his music to wider attention in 2012; the former adding performances of his Cello Concerto and Five Pieces for Orchestra to that of his 12th Symphony in 2011, and the latter programming his Quartet No. 7 alongside choral music and a talk/documentary screening. Hopefully, 2014 will see further programming of his music as part of another, more promising centenary celebration; that of his close friend and collaborator Dylan Thomas.

Thankfully, there is a music festival in Wales that has a policy of celebrating the birthdays of composers while they are actually still with us: the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, founded in 1969 and, since 1992, run as a major international ‘festival of living composers’ by Welsh composer John Metcalf. 2012 was significant for the festival, as it moved from its customary early autumn slot to the spring, this year featuring the music of Philip Glass, who turned 75, and – much more interestingly – Per Nørgård at 80.

we are, it seems, completely in thrall to the past… through a seemingly unshakeable focus on music from distant eras rather than that of our own time

Whilst Glass needs little introduction as one of the best-known living composers in the world (to mark his birthday, the original, 1976 Metropolitan Opera production of his seminal Einstein on the Beach was reconstructed at the London Barbican this May), Nørgård deserves a far wider audience than he has had hitherto as the most influential and important Danish composer since Carl Nielsen. Conductor Sergiu Celibidache has ventured that ‘only the mind of a new time in the new millennium will be able to understand the scope of Nørgård’s music’ and this may well turn out to be true; in any event, BBC NOW, the virtuosic Ars Nova Copenhagen and equally impressive young Ensemble Midtvest gave Vale Festival performances of both large and small-scale works to deserved acclaim ahead of the UK premiere of Nørgård’s 7th Symphony at the Proms (his 8th – already written this summer – will premiere, along with his 11th String Quartet, in the UK next March at the Barbican).

Per Norgard Classical Music Wales
Per Norgard
Image Credit: Time Out

Metcalf should be congratulated; both for these successes and for another international coup this year with the first ever visit to the UK by Soloists of Traditional Chinese Instruments, with further focus on the music of contemporary Chinese composer Qigang Chen (who happens, like Glass and Nørgård, also to have lived and studied in Paris). In this respect – and made poignant by the large and supportive presence of Ensemble Midtvest’s ‘friends’ group, who travelled all the way from Denmark to attend their concerts – his Festival was especially thought-provoking this year as to the importance of not only bearing witness to new work, but of embracing and participating in the wider-level cultural shifts and changes that those works can signify.

Sadly though, 2012 saw the passing of another era with the recent deaths of two major 20th Century figures, both radicals in their own way and both mavericks latterly embraced by the establishment; the self-exiled German, Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) and remarkably long-lived New Yorker, Elliott Carter (1908-2012). Perhaps it is too soon to expect concert tributes by year end, but it was, at least, a fitting coincidence that a Welsh National Opera concert in Cardiff should happen to have featured sections of Henze’s Requiem alongside Mozart’s but three weeks after Henze’s death.

Certainly, it would be good to see further tributes to Carter and Henze in the coming year – and, more widely, both to increase our national engagement with contemporary musical events of international significance and, indeed, to generate such events from home soil by encouraging more of a focus on new works. Perhaps we should look to two new key appointments to deliver in that regard, with the dynamic, young Thomas Søndergård having embarked upon a four-year contract as new Principal Conductor of BBC NOW, whilst the internationally distinguished opera director David Pountney is about to launch his first new production as Artistic Director and CEO of Welsh National Opera.

Søndergård has won accolades for championing new work and the music of fellow Scandinavians from Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen to Magnus Lindberg – which three he did in 2012 or will in 2013 – perform in Wales. It would be fantastic if he were to follow Metcalf’s lead in programming Nørgård – but, as Principal of Wales’ national orchestra, it would certainly be fitting for him personally to contribute to BBC NOW’s various initiatives encouraging contemporary Welsh composers as other, less senior conductors already do; Grant Llewellyn, for instance, did sterling and inspiring work in November at the helm for BBC NOW’s Welsh Panorama at Hoddinott Hall, which featured a whopping seven lesser-known composers both from and living in Wales – including the current BBC NOW Composer in Residence, Mark Bowden.

On the operatic front, it is ironic that Pountney’s year of coming into post at WNO should have seen yet another new staging of an old war-horse in the form of La Bohème, as he is on record around the millenium as stating that ‘the future of opera for me is not about how many performances of La Bohème there will be in the next century, nor about whether this Bohème is dressed up as something else. It is about which stories we would like to tell in our new century, and what music we will tell them with, and which audience we will find to listen to our stories … I am talking about new work’.

Thankfully, Pountney’s first new production as director is promisingly ambitious and signals a commitment to more exciting, challenging fare than the Puccini: Alban Berg’s 1930s opera Lulu (to be staged next February), is not only a masterpiece of 20th Century theatre, but represents a milestone in operatic social and political critique – and has, shockingly, never been staged in Wales. Looking to the future, Pountney certainly has contemporary opera on the agenda, with a series of five starting with Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream next summer. [Sad news at time of writing – Harvey died on 5th December aged 77,  having lost his battle with motor neurone disease]. But when – or if – WNO will venture to put new work by Welsh composers onto its main stage remains to be seen.

Wales is, after all, not short of talent; this year alone, Lynne Plowman scored great success with her third opera, The Face in the Mirror, for WNO’s educational arm, WNO Max, and has won a prestigious Arts Council of Wales Creative Wales award for 2012-13. Likewise, the enterprising Music Theatre Wales toured coming man Huw Watkins’s chamber opera In the Locked Room alongside Scot Stuart MacRae’s Ghost Patrol in a joint project with Scottish Opera to notable acclaim.

When Newcastle City Council recently cut its arts budget by 100% there was great outcry within England, so where is the the outcry here in the ‘Land of Song’?

From where will the major new voices of the future appear if the opportunities for inspirational engagement at top level remain elusive? Of Welsh-born composers, Paul Mealor has undoubtedly achieved greatest international and popular success this year, with his Jubilate! Jubilee! for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee building on the success of his 2011 Royal Wedding piece Ubi Caritas – and serving as a reminder that, of all the art forms, it is music through which anniversaries and significant dates in general are most movingly celebrated. But none of the thirteen composers commissioned for the Flotilla on the Thames were Welsh. And Bryn Terfel’s Bryn Festat London’s South Bank in July may have showcased the usual choral suspects, but he promoted precious little by way of new classical music beyond the ubiquitous (and musically conservative) Karl Jenkins.

So, as we look back on the Welsh classical music scene in 2012, there is much to celebrate and to ponder – but it is concern for the present and for the future which we must ultimately carry into the New Year; for it is, alas, the ongoing, swingeing cuts to arts budgets and the erosion of music education nation-wide that could turn out to have the most decisive and far-reaching effect of 2012. In instrumental tuition alone, it was reported in 2011 that £500k had been cut from budgets for school music lessons across Wales since a report called for a better service – and that Powys County Council has a shameful zero budget for instrumental tuition. When Newcastle City Council recently cut its arts budget by 100% there was great outcry within England, so where is the the outcry here in the ‘Land of Song’? Or are we so focused upon the past that we allow a drift backwards into musical mediocrity and parochialism? Cage would, one suspects, truly be frightened at such a prospect for, rather than a choice between new and old ideas in classical music, it seems we could choose, even more starkly, to be left with few ideas at all.


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