The Cambridge Prom

Of all the things that have made me cross this year, this has made me the crossest. Yes, even crosser than Doctor Who. Because as a former Cambridge music undergraduate I can only describe last week’s musical “celebration” of the University’s 800th anniversary in the Royal Albert Hall as a big pile of wank.

Well, actually as a former Cambridge music undergraduate I should probably be able to find a more eloquent way of putting it, but the contents of the prom suggest that expectations of the university have dropped.

What was in it? First the presence of Prince Charles was announced by a gloriously camp Willcocks arrangement of the national anthem, in many ways the highlight of the concert. This was followed by a couple of very insignificant works by a very significant dead Cambridge composer (Vaughan Williams), a couple of insignificant works by two fairly significant living Cambridge composers (Jonathan Harvey and Judith Weir), a very slight new work by, I fear, a completely insignificant Cambridge academic (Ryan Wigglesworth), a set of liturgical canticles by a composer significant only in the tiny field of Anglican music (Stanford)… and finally, AT LAST, a significant work by a significant composer who never went to Cambridge at all, viz. Saint-Saëns. Yes, he received an honorary degree from the university, but so did Mother Teresa, it doesn’t mean we can claim them as our own.

This cowardly programming would seem to suggest that Cambridge composers have produced so little of significance that, besides commissioning a new work from somebody that not even a regular concert-going audience would have heard of and falling back on some banal Anglican crap, we need to rely on a composer only tenuously linked to the university for a proper work.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. From giants of the rennaissance like Gibbons, to the greatest English composer of the first half of the 20th century, Vaughan Williams, through to extremely fine living composers like Jonathan Dove, George Benjamin and Thomas Adès, there ought to be enough music to fill a whole concert series before it becomes necessary to rifle through the list of honorary degrees.

For the non-musicians reading this let me try to find a way of putting it into context: imagine the BBC ran an evening of programmes celebrating 90 years of innovation and success. The inclusion of Stanford would be like running two episodes of My Family back to back, whilst Ryan Wigglesworth’s new work would be the equivalent of the BBC asking for a special celebratory edition of BBC 7’s satirical sketch show Newsjack. The decision to make the main event of the evening a symphony by Saint-Saëns would be like the BBC rounding off with an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So the question remains, what the fuck were they thinking??? If Stanford and Wigglesworth, why not Richard Vranch and Kit Hesketh-Harvey? At least the concert wouldn’t have been so bland.

Bland and conservative, that’s what it was. Qualities which aren’t usually associated with Cambridge University, but perhaps judging by both the concert itself and its enthusiastic sell-out audience, aspects which apply to more of its alumni than it might care to admit.

Robin Holloway (a very fine living composer himself) has written far more forgivingly about the debacle here.

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