Is any orchestra programming better?

Is any orchestra programming better?


norman lebrecht

October 18, 2019

In the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s centenary, the daring continues even when the music director is having family time. Michael Seal, associate conductor (and former violinist) of the orchestra, pushed the envelope out last night with unfamiliar scores on a Brexit Thursday. Exclusive review in the Slipped Disc CBSO100 series by Richard Bratby:


CBSO / Michael Seal / Paul Rissmann

Symphony Hall



“The Thrill of the New” was how it was billed, and with the CBSO scheduled to give some 40 premieres over its two centenary seasons, the idea seems to have been to offer a painless introduction to new(ish) music for – shall we say? – the more traditionally-inclined concertgoer. So Michael Seal conducted an appetising spread of bite-size modernist favourites dating from 1909 to last month, introduced and explained with colourful visual aids and unapologetic good humour by Paul Rissmann. A reasonably-sized audience was clearly on board with the concept: chuckling at the final deflation of Jörg Widmann’s Con Brio (timpanist Tibor Hettich took a well-deserved bow), and sighing after the blissed-out string sonorities of Jennifer Higdon’s String Lake.

Seal looked after the details without ever letting the sense of direction flag, and the CBSO responded with deliciously filthy trombones and reeds in the suite from Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face (still surely the best thing he’s done), glinting half-tones in Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder and fluorescent, Janáček-like brass in Daniel Kidane’s Woke: premiered last month at the Proms, and cheered enthusiastically tonight. The players descended gamely into the stalls to lead a mass-participation performance of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music – with guidance from Rissmann, it worked rather well.

If the repertoire tended, overall, towards the relatively “safe” (and Elena Kats-Chernin’s impeccably bland Big Rhap would have raised yawns even in 1920), that’s understandable given the concert’s professed purpose. Hopefully it’ll become an annual fixture; and perhaps in time, in the city of Jonathan Harvey and Brian Ferneyhough, the strength of the dose might be increased. For now, it’s a curious reflection on our culture that the most genuinely startling music on the programme was also the oldest: one of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, written a decade before the CBSO was founded.

Richard Bratby

See all the season’s reviews here.


  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    That Elena Kats-Chernin again,even in Britain. Sometimes I feel like emigrating from Australia in order to run away from her music, even though as a person she seems very charming. Apart from Brett Dean (they cannot avoid him due to his international success) & rarely performed Georges Lentz, in Australia easy listening dominates modern music. Surely things must be better in Britain, as there are plenty of great living composers there.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Interestingly, and revealingly, behind this text lies the assumption that audiences, since they are stupid, lazy, ignorant, bourgeois, and reactionary, have to be gradually moulded to become ripe for progressive ‘cutting- edge’ works (Ferneyhough etc.) – as if it has to be trained to enjoy, to understand and to embrace the products of its own time which are, of course, of the Ferneyhough kind – however ugly, meaningless, boring, unmusical and indigestible they may be:

    It is an aesthetic totalitarianism defined by the idea that there is something like progress in music and that it is simply out of the question that something like alternatives to such aesthetics could be possible, or that it may be that the art form – as ‘represented’ by its new music establishment – has sunk into decline in the last century.

    The observation that Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra were ‘the most genuinely startling music’ is due to the fact, that the dynamics which give this music its expressive intensity, are entirely traditional, and tonal. But that is too difficult to understand.

    So, in this way, so-called ‘innovative’ programming as informed by such background ideas of misunderstood contemporaneity, i.e. a historicist notion, is in reality undermining the orchestral performing culture instead of injecting it with new life. There have been written excellent works in the last century which don’t conform to such historicism, which are entirely tonal, and new in the same time, which could offer the wished-for injection.

    • Esther Cavett says:

      ==assumption that audiences, since they are stupid, lazy, ignorant, bourgeois, and reactionary,

      When Esa-Pekka Salonen became principal conductor (or ‘principal baton’ in the argot of SD) of Philharmonia he gave an interview saying something how he was “bringing” modern music to London. Err.. like it had ever gone away from here.

      So what did he bring to the huddled London masses ? Rite of Spring , Wozzeck, Bartok Cto for Orch. All wonderful stuff of course, but his mission was oversold and a bit unnecessary.

      PS: anybody else off to see Mask of Orpheus tonight ? Lots of Swarovski crystals to behold :

      • John Borstlap says:

        This piece is exactly the type of work that is often presented as the ‘cutting edge’ of progressive new music:

        Productions have to be dressed-up with visuals in an effort to distract from the ‘music’, or to soften its effect to an illustrative element to ‘very interesting’ things going-on on the stage.

        The spirit of such works echos the state of mind of seriously mentally-challenged patients, which is bad enough if it is meant to reflect ‘our modern time’, but what does it say about that time? Or rather: about a certain way of looking at it?

    • Herr Doktor says:

      John, brilliant!! I could not agree more. There is a sort of cultural arrogance at play, an unstated opinion among these scribes that those of us who find such atonal and experimental failures as only worthy of the ashbin of history are simply too unsophisticated to appreciate “progress.” It’s narcissistic in the extreme and as you very correctly noted, undermining the orchestra culture rather than advancing it.

      I’ll argue something else: such composers lack talent, and have no ability to communciate ideas in a way that have a reason to exist or can be appreciated at any level other than beyond an incredibly small non-representative echo chamber. When you see the shadows of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, etc. staring at you and you’re not remotely in their league, what do you do? You create a new sandbox to play in in which you can’t be judged by the standards of the greats that preceded you. It’s all a giant con. These people simply lack talent.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Surely many of the sound artists practice their art without any musical talent, because something quite different is asked for. But I would not generalize: by creating a different art form: sonic art, one could forget music altogether and treat sound as something virginal to be treated in other than musical ways. And some of these works have beauty and interest, but a precondition is that the listener forgets the existence of music. Comparing sonic artists with the peaks of music is somehow unfair, since sonic art wants to do something very different.

        The real problem is the presentation of sonic art as music, and its claims to occupy space, money and publicity which are in the territory of music. It seems to me that orchestras should present sonic concerts as something different from music, as they do with musicals and film music concerts. One can imagine a ‘sonic series’ next to their regular concerts. Whether such concerts would draw a large audience, is another matter, but intrusion of sonic monstruosities in a regular music concert is like insisting the presence of a gorilla at a wedding party.

      • Allen says:

        “When you see the shadows of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, etc. staring at you and you’re not remotely in their league, what do you do? You create a new sandbox to play in in which you can’t be judged by the standards of the greats that preceded you.”

        Spot on.

        A bit of manufactured controversy doesn’t hurt, either.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Therefore it is quite dishonest to want both things: the separate sand box to escape judgment, and the playground for the adults for the status and money. You cannot have your cake and eat it.

          On the other hand: imagine to have to compete with the composers of the core rerertoire, you must be mad or an egomaniac.

      • J says:

        @Herr Doktor: “such composers lack talent”. Ironically, that’s almost exactly what many people said about the likes of Beethoven and Bruckner when their work was new.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, but so much of what we hear as ‘new music’ isn’t new at all, but chewing on the aesthetics of half a century old. And then, while new but valuable works have often been deemed inferior to what people already knew (in premodern periods), the argument cannot be used around: you think it’s bad so it must be very good, since composers X, Y and Z were also not accepted at the beginning.

        • Herr Doktor says:

          In Beethoven’s and Bruckner’s lifetimes, they were in fact regarded as geniuses by the majority of those in their world. That recognition came sooner to Beethoven than Bruckner, but Bruckner was in fact duly recognized as being a great composer during his lifetime.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          J: Your comments can not be serious. Beethoven was recognized as an extreme talent from the beginning of his composing career. The aristocrats of Vienna even paid him a stipend to ensure he didn’t leave the city.

  • Michael Turner says:

    No matter what the exact programme is, the CBSO (not in total isolation) is doing now what it did well in the earlier years of Rattle’s tenure – making sure that there is plenty of new or little-known repertoire explored for the audience to decide whether it likes it or not.

    When so many institutes are, in effect, delivering seasons where the programming message within is, “our Mahler’s better than your Mahler” or “our MD’s Brahms is more radical than yours”, it can only be a breath of fresh air when ensembles like the CBSO are serving up programmes such as the one under discussion. For me, a concert like this one will hopefully engender a response in the audience of either “I didn’t like that” (whether it’s due to it being too tonal, or too atonal) or , “I thought that was great. What else has that composer produced?”.

    • John Borstlap says:

      All very true.

      But it is regrettble that orchestras most of the time simply turn towards the type of new music which is presented as such by modernist establishments which are filled to the brim with backhand ideological motivation. The reality of contemporary music since WW II is pluralistic, not totalitarian. Although modernism has considerably crumbled in terms of practice, its ideologies are still cultivated by lots of people as the only way ‘progress’ in music can be imagined, like old marxists in the West who cling to their nostalgic memories of the Soviet Union.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      The problem, Michael, admirable though your comments are, is that many times the audience decides not to buy a ticket after saying “I am not interested in going to that.”

  • Furzwängler says:

    And what, pray does Brexit Thursday have to do with anything?

    Perhaps if he negotiators had been forced to listen incessantly to that godawful piece by Ferneyhough that John Borstlap linked to – Plötzlichkeit – they might have come to a deal much more, well, plötzlich – in fact in no time at all.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Somewhere in Renaissance times, the vatican installed a special tradition in the way a new pope was chosen: the cardinals (who had to elect the new pope among them) were locked-up and given little food and water through a small window, and due to the barren dietal circumstances, the new pope was chosen fairly quickly. Before this measure was taken, deliberations were accompanied by generous banquets, music, entertainment ladies and the like, so that it had become quite difficult to achieve an end result and election sections were drawn-out infinetely. Such interdemocratic processes would indeed be much helped by Ferneyhough’s or Xenakis’ works.

  • Paul says:

    Although I am indeed a fan of contemporary music, I prefer if it actually communicates something and does not leave the listener totally perplexed. Not everything needs to be continually radical and different. For instance, look for “Frantumi” by Fredric Kroll as sung by Elisabeth Kulmann on youtube. Perfectly composed music that gains with every repeated listening.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Good music in an average 1870 style. Nothing wrong with it.

      • Fredric Kroll says:

        Thank you for finding my “Frantumi” good music. I would suggest that it is more in an “average” 1896 than in an 1870 style – there are lots of chord progressions in it that could hardly have been written in 1870 (by whom?). For an “average” 1870 (or 1893) style, please see

  • G&D says:

    I’m sure ‘FS60103’ would have something to say about this.

  • Rob Keeley says:

    Rawsthorne. Berkeley. Gerhard. Dallapiccola. Robert Simpson. Frankel. Frank Bridge. Lutyens. Just saying…

  • Don Ciccio says:

    “Is any orchestra programming better?”

    Yes. The London Philharmonic under Jurowski, for instance, has been doing interesting and actually varied program for a number of years. From what I see, the programming in Brum has a hefty dose of contemporary music, plus a few lesser known pieces, mostly by blog-favorite Weinberg (a composer worth knowing, indeed, even if short of great).

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I have a hunch the Schoenberg 5 Pieces will always be startling, no matter what they are paired with.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    I mean listen to this quartet by (the Billy Connolly lookalike) James Dillon. String players spend years / decades learning to make a nice sound and then here are forced to sound like the worst sort of amateur

  • Ron says:

    Personally I dislike his pretentious unfounded alien-styled inhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.
    Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticized shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship your ‘message’.

    … Ferneyhough… the charlatan king of pretentious wishful implication