What has happened to the Barbican’s Total Immersion?

Intermezzo describes the Barbican’s 2014-15 season, recently announced, as ‘boring‘ – and from a new music perspective and with a heavy heart it’s hard to disagree.

Here’s a pdf of the season brochure. Browsing through the list of premieres, I’m not finding much to get the blood pumping. John Tavener’s last major work, Flood of Beauty is on 28th September, and there’s a new Kevin Volans piece from the BBC Singers four days before that. An orchestration of Thomas Larcher’s A Padmore Cycle? Meh. A couple of Brett Dean pieces. The UK premiere of Shchedrin’s opera Levsha could be interesting, but we’re talking pretty few and far between here. You have to wait until next February for Kagel’s Three études for large orchestra with the BBC SO, and (a probable highlight) Lachenmann’s Tableau with Rattle and the Berlin Phil.

After that, things pick up a little – there’s Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland on 8 March; James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion on 5 April, which you can take or leave, but it is at least big and new; and works by young composers (as yet unnamed) from Alan Gilbert and the NY Phil on 18 April. The various Boulez at 90 events, which include an Ensemble Intercontemporain concert on 28 April (2015, remember) liven things up a bit as well.

But the biggest worry has to be the Barbican’s flagship new music series, Total Immersion. The present season’s trio of all-dayers have/will be focused on The Rite of Spring, Thea Musgrave, and Heitor Villa-Lobos. Bear in mind that this is a series described on the Barbican’s website as ‘a chance for you to hear the very best of new and recent music’. No disrespect to Thea Musgrave, but this description is something of a stretch across those three events.

And while there isn’t anything quite so backward looking in this year’s line-up of TIs, the series is increasingly looking like it has run out of ideas. So we have – in memoriam – a day devoted to John Tavener that features all his best known works, but forgoes the opportunity to anything properly weird like the Celtic Requiem or Ultimos ritos; a day of percussion! (exclamation mark in original); and a day of Boulez, because he’ll be 90. Now, I have absolutely no problem celebrating Boulez’s 90th birthday in 2015. But the world won’t be short of opportunities to programme his music that year. Events like Total Immersion are rare and precious; handing one over to the general birthday saturation that will surely already be taking place just smacks of a lack of imagination.

This is the third year in a row in which TI has looked to have run out of steam, and it hasn’t been around for that long. Is there really no one at the BBC SO able to look around the new music landscape and come up with a single composer who isn’t either dead or 80+ who might be worth a days’ programming?


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