Park Lane Group Young Artist's Series Nurtures New Talent
Series is like a nursery where fledgling artists are made ready to fly
If London's musical life could be compared to an ecological system, then the annual Park Lane Group (PLG) Young Artists New Year Series would be its fertile wetlands, a nursery where fledgling artists are made ready to fly in the outside world. Among those who have had their careers nurtured in this supportive environment are cellist Steven Isserlis, violinist Anthony Marwood, composer Thomas Ade's, and the Belcea Quartet.
Founded in 1956, the PLG presents concerts throughout the year, but its New Year Series in January at the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room is unique—and this year's event was no exception. Its unique selling point is that some of Britain's best young musicians are matched up with music by today's most interesting composers, alongside music by modern masters. The PLG artistic committee selects performers and programs, asking such key key questions as, "Which instruments need new works?" and "Can we foster a relationship between a composer and an artist?"
Good questions, and when they are correctly answered, the resulting concert is invigorating. During my ten years of attending the series, I have encountered artists and composers previously unknown to me, many of whose careers subsequently took off (it no doubt helps that there are artistic directors and other talent spotters in the audience).
True, I've had to sit through some patience-testing music that was probably receiving its one and only performance, and I've endured some not-quite-ready-for-prime-time playing. Happily, this is the exception rather than the rule.
There's usually one featured composer in a weeklong series—past composers include Michael Tippett, George Benjamin, Thea Musgrave, and Henri Dutilleux—but this year no single composer emerged, so it was more of a grab bag than usual.
At the start of the week, cellist Gemma Rosefield, pianist Nicola Eimer, and the vocal ensemble Juice offered a program of works that were remarkably accessible (not always a positive word in the contemporary music world). Two new pieces for cello and piano were particularly attractive: the lyrical Prospero's Isle by James Francis Brown (born 1969) and Falling Angels by Cecilia McDowall (born 1951), a more programmatic work that depicts Venice's decay. Both works suited cellist Rosefield's declamatory style, which was unfortunately a bit too rough-edged for the Shostakovich Sonata in D minor, Op. 40, that ended the evening.
Later in the week another cello landmark, Britten's Suite No. 3, was given a solid outing by James Barralet, who with his blond hair and black clothing had quite a striking stage presence. Barralet's moment to show technical prowess came in the program's first half with Kenneth Hesketh's Die hÃ¤ngende Figur ist Judas, a solo work that saw Barralet accompanying a bowed line with steady pizzicato in his left hand, among other tricks.
Three string quartets were featured amid the instrumentalists. One, the Barbirolli String Quartet, demonstrated some virtuoso chops in Luciano Berio's Notturno, and made a convincing argument for Elizabeth Maconchy's String Quartet No. 13 "Quartetto Corto," a work full of driving rhythms later contrasted with an expressive violin solo in the middle Lento movement.
So is the contemporary part of London's musical ecosystem in rude health? After hearing a week of such committed music making, it would be easy to think so. Yet it's been announced that the BBC Symphony Orchestra Composer Weekend will be cancelled after 21 years. The latest BBC weekend event took place at the Barbican Center in mid-January and featured the Scottish composer, and PLG alumnus, Judith Weir. Like previous weekends, it offered a clever mix of concerts, talks, free events, and film—Elliott Carter, Sofia Gubaidulina, and John Cage are some previous weekend subjects.
The BBC Symphony evidently has plans to continue the composer focus in a different form, so audience members will just have to hope that they come up with something that's half as compelling.