After 21 years, the Barbican brings down the curtain on contemporary Composer Weekends

Classical music news

21 January 2008

Judith Weir

The BBC Symphony Orchestra has decided to end its annual January Composer Weekend format after twenty-one years of highly-acclaimed programmes celebrating the work of a single composer over a weekend packed full of events.

Today the orchestra announced that the exploration of the music of Judith Weir which took place over the last few days was the last time this format will be used. Instead, the BBCSO will have a number of 'Composer Days' over the season, so that a greater range of composers will be covered in less extensive detail.

According to the press release, 'After 21 years the BBC SO felt it was time for a fresh look and new direction, and is planning a new flexible format for future celebrations that will continue to champion and increase its commitment to contemporary 20th and 21st century music, in close collaboration with the Barbican.'

The BBC is keen to emphasise the benefits of the arrangement: 'This new flexible format opens up an opportunity to champion a greater number of composers each year and also offers the chance to explore composers for whom the weekend format would not have been possible. It provides a whole range of new possibilities; including looking at younger contemporary composers who do not yet have the range and volume of repertory required for the weekend. The new Composer Days will preserve many of the characteristics of the January Composer Weekends, with talks, films and concerts including chamber, choral and orchestral works throughout each day. The current collaboration with the Guildhall School will continue; encouraging young musicians to play works by modern and contemporary composers remains high on the agenda.'

The orchestra's commitment to contemporary music is also promised to be increased: 'In the weekend's place will be a flexible and varied format which in the 2008/2009 season will consist of three separate days dedicated to three composers, spread across January, February and March. Two further events will include the celebration of Eliot Carter's 100th birthday and the opening of the Barbican's China Festival with a focus on the music of Tan Dun, alongside world premieres throughout the season by Hayden, Vic Hoyland and Brian Elias and UK premieres of works by Pintscher, Benet Casablancas and Havelka.'

The idea seems to be that having more 'Composer Days' will allow the orchestra to explore a wider range of composers. 'The Composer Days planned for 2009 will focus on Karlheinz Stockhausen (17 January), Tristan Murail (7 February) and Iannis Xenakis (7 March), all major figures in 20th-century music whose works are rarely played for reasons of length, difficulty or size of forces required. The Composer Days start with Stockhausen because the very first Weekend - in 1985, before the event became annual, was dedicated to his music. Murail is rarely performed in this country, even though he is extremely influential in France. Xenakis' works are seldom heard in public halls in London because they are vast and complicated to put on. This new format will build on the success of the January Composer Weekends bringing new and overlooked music to audiences but in an innovative way that offers a new range of possibilities.'

An important anniversary also forms part of the focus for the season: 'Elliot Carter's 100th birthday falls on 12 November 2008 and the BBC Symphony Orchestra celebrates with a special concert on 16 December at the Barbican. Following the Carter Composer Weekend in 2006, Oliver Knussen conducts an all-Carter affair.'

As previously announced, the Barbican is holding a festival celebrating Chinese culture, and the BBCSO intends to participate: 'The Barbican launches a festival focusing on the music of China, entitled Beyond the Wall, on 21 March 2008 with the BBC SO performing Tan Dun's The Map for 'cello, video and Orchestra with the composer himself conducting. Tan Dun is a conceptual and multifaceted composer/conductor whose repertoire spans the boundaries of classical, multimedia, Eastern and Western musical traditions.'

There is some good news here, in that the BBC SO isn't completely withdrawing from its coverage of contemporary music. But the truth is that the Composer Weekend format was probably the orchestra's most artistically important and invigorating annual activity. Dedicating a whole weekend to a composer's music avoided superficiality and really allowed people to become familiar with some of the most important compositions of recent years, whereas spending only a day on a composer's output will necessitate an abbreviated approach. The Judith Weir weekend has so far received some excellent reviews, which begs the question: if it ain't broke, why fix it?

By Dominic McHugh