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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Is the South Bank safe in these hands?

By Norman Lebrecht / July 24, 2006

Among the more obvious shortcomings of Jude Kelly’s recently announced ‘vision’ for London’s yawning South Bank, the shortest by a good head and shoulders is her self-assembly pack of artistic associates and advisors.

The very need for such a support system exposes Kelly’s lack of confidence in the core area of musical programming at Britain’s biggest arts centre. The complex, comprising three concert halls and the Hayward Art Gallery, has been strung together pretty much haphazardly over half a century with little by way of consistent policy beyond a tacit acceptance of the primacy of classical concerts.

For many years these were put on by any performing group or impresario with the price of a booking guarantee. More recently, four orchestras - the Philharmonia, London Philharmonic, London Sinfonietta and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - were given residency status with a view to adding conherence to the programming. But the musicians stubbonrly resisted mutual coordination and the Arts Council at its most politically correct has been pressuring the South Bank to cut back on classics while imposing a measurable cultural polic across its art forms.

Which is where Jude Kelly comes in. The ex-chief of West Yorkshire Playhouse and West Hampstead’s Metal art studio has been candid about her lack of musical knowledge and quick to make key appointments.

Marshall Marcus, formerly of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), joins her as director of music, and Gillian Moore, previously of the London Sinfonietta, as head of contemporary culture. Their task will be to create overarching themes and coordinate them between four resident orchestras and visiting artists, a job once performed unpaid by an occasional clash committee. The South Bank is about controlling art and whatever else is rising there, the payroll is positively booming.

Beyond the initial hirings, Kelly has bolstered her regime with a panel of Artists in Residence and Associate Artists whose role is to come up with eye-catching cycles and ideas that will make the grey-faced arts centre competitive once more, both with Europe’s finest and with the Barbican, which has flourished in its absence. These star associates are supposed to add celebrity, energy and a sorely-needed X factor to the Arts Council-funded problem centre.

Unfortunately, Kelly’s hat was low on rabbits. She named the young conductor Vladimir Jurowski an Artist in Residence, but he already fulfils that role de facto as chief of the resident London Philharmonic and a regular with the OAE, which get first pick of his brains. Kelly would have liked to parade Esa-Pekka Salonen as an Associate, but the deceptively modernist Finnnish conductor has yet to finalise a relationship with the Philharmonia Orchestra and was not prepared at this stage to nail his sought-after colours to an inchoate South Bank.

So what she was left with in the classical foreground was a pair of English composers, Oliver Knussen and George Benjamin, generally well-regarded and guaranteed in every way not to rock a boat. Knussen, 54, has been music director of the London Sinfonietta, artistic director at Aldeburgh and head of contemporary music at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts. Benjamin, 46, founded the South Bank’s Meltdown Festival and was consultant to Radio 3 in its 20th century music seasons. Knussen is a Commander of the British Empire, Benjamin a Chevalier dans l’ordre des arts et letters, both lapel-busting members of the cultural estblishment.

Both men are guest conductors on the international circuit and both are so much part of the advisory scene that it is a wonder how either of them gets to write any music – which may explain why their output is so meagre. Knussen, since the millennium, has written a violin concerto lasting 17 minutes and Songs for Sue, a 12-minute elegy for soprano and small ensemble. Benjamin in the past six years has written Dance Figures, a 15-minute suite that receives its UK premiere at the BBC Proms on Monday (July 24); he has also expanded an orchestral suite Palimpsests and delivered a four-minute 50th birthday ode to Knussen. Mozart in a morning wrote more music than either man in a decade.

In the prime of life and apparent good health, the pair ought to be at the height of their fertility yet such is the English aptitude for seducing artists away from art - and the concomitant avidness of English artists to accept state honours and financial honoraria - that no-one, not even their loyal publisher, would aver that Knussen or Benjamin has come within a nautical mile of fulfilling a truly remarkable potential.

The son of a double-bass player in the London Symphony Orchestra, Knussen gave his first symphony with the LSO at the age of 15 and his second in America four years later. His third symphony, a depiction of Ophelia’s mad scene from Hamlet, was premiered in 1979 and toured the world over from Moscow to Miami as an icebreaker for new British music. Knussen has, frustratingly, never written another.

His short operas Where the Wild Things Are (40 minutes) and Higgledy Piggeldy Pop (an hour) were popular hits at Glyndebourne. The second was finished in 1990 and there has been no successor.

George Benjamin was the youngest composer ever to be premiered at the Proms when, in 1980, his suite Ringed by the Flat Horizon was rapturously received at the Royal Albert Hall. Overly influenced at first by his teacher Olivier Messiaen, he followed Pierre Boulez into electronic composition and, after several short circuits, recovered an original voice that is unfailingly engaging, intelligent – and scarce.

Unlike their immediate seniors, Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies, who retreated far from the city hubbub to nurture a gift that developed organically and in considerable profusion, Knussen and Benjamin were seduced by committee rooms. Where Harry wrote operas on a French mountaintop and Max produced reels of ten concertos and string quartets from his Orkneys hideaway, the younger men were organising ephemeral concert series and shuttling first class to Boston and Paris.

It may be that their organisational activities were a cover for composer’s block, a mythical condition that preys on musician’s minds. Or they may simply have been unable to resist the temptation to impose their ideas on a society without having to go through the terrible drag of setting down notes correctly on a page.

Whatever the case, we have been robbed of the mature cream of Knussen and Benjamin by their readiness to accept public posts. Another symphony from Knussen would have done more to boost contemporary music than another summer festival. An opera from Benjamin, long promised, would be a coup for Covent Garden.

It may be unfair to hold the composers to blame when headless chicken coops like the South Bank keep thrusting opportunities in their path, not to mention the crinkly stuff that pays the domestic bills. It is not too late for Knussen and Benjamin to push away the poisoned chalice of artistic activism – as Mark Anthony Turnage, a composer of the next generation, has conspicuously done. If Knussen and Benjamin were to send their regrets to the South Bank and pledge themselves to do nothing but write new music for the next year, they would send a beacon of hope to living composers and lovers of contemporary music by asserting once and for all the supremacy of the creative spirit over the commercial industry of cultural organisation. They should tell Jude Kelly that composers have better things to do.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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