The voting called for our “ten favourite works written since 1900”.
I took this literally: favourites. Not necessarily the greatest or the most seminal or the most famous or the most representatively “20th century”, whatever that might mean. Just favourites. For me this is music that I’m always happy to listen to, music which has given me inspiration or delight, music that has special significance for me.
The original shortlist was long (nearly 40 works) and, inevitably for the 20th century, stylistically diverse. More so than in any previous poll, it broke my heart to bring it down to ten. At this point it was necessary to invent some “rules” – each composer could be represented only once, for example, and I aimed for some representation across genres: orchestral, concerto, theatre, small ensemble…
My positive biases are evident: orchestral sound, music for dance, dramatic inspiration. Please don’t jump to conclusions about my negative biases, although the initials of one are DSCH. And I happily endorse the presence of musical theatre. Twice. Bite me, as they say.
In the end, four of my choices were in the 100, one of these scraped into the top 10 (Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet). Two of my composers made it in but with other works. The countdown isn’t over, but for the other four I’m resigned to being part of the invisible long tail.
And so my ten, annotated…
BARTÓK Bluebeard’s Castle
Thought about the Concerto for Orchestra (42 in the poll), which I've loved ever since we studied it at high school. But Bluebeard is so much more astonishing and powerful. (And I figured, correctly, that the Concerto would get plenty of votes without my help – this is a recurring theme.)
(13) BERNSTEIN West Side Story
This is is far and away the best thing he ever wrote. And it’s cool.
KERRY This Insubstantial Pageant
This was a fond choice: I played my part in bringing this piece about. But I knew it wouldn’t make the 100, as it’s not available in a commercial recording. It should be. (Meanwhile, a reference recording can be borrowed from the AMC, and there’s an excerpt online including the quotation from Vivaldi’s “La tempesta di mare” flute concerto, which made me smile.)
LUTOSŁAWSKI Concerto for Orchestra
There’s a story here: heading off to a concert as a flute-playing teenager in order to hear Rampal play Mozart and coming away with my head buzzing with excitement about this piece by a composer I’d never heard of before. This choice is symbolic of what I strive for in my programming and ceaselessly hope for in my concert-going: come for one thing, go away thrilled by a discovery of some kind. (See Vasks.)
(10) PROKOFIEV Romeo and Juliet
Everything I love about Prokofiev’s music, plus heart in abundance.
(62) RAVEL Piano Concerto in G
Another story. I first heard this exhilarating piece at the age of eight-and-eleven-months. It was in the theatre not as concert music, and as a result the movements now always sound as if they’re being played out of order – thank you very much, Mr Murphy.
SONDHEIM Sweeney Todd
«Have a little fop, Finest in the shop, Or some shepherd's pie peppered with actual shepherd on top…» This was the first Sondheim musical I saw. I considered others, but this one’s the closest in many respects to whatever it is that we define as “classical”, so it seemed right.
(35) STRAVINSKY The Firebird
Oh, how I struggled in choosing between this, The Rite of Spring (9 in the poll) and Petrushka. How to decide between voluptuous beauty, pounding exhilaration and the slightly bleak but moving tale of a puppet come to life?
WESTLAKE Omphalo Centric Lecture
There’s a reason this music for percussion ensemble is one of Nigel Westlake’s most frequently performed works (I believe). It’s just so damn addictive! Encore please. (Westlake has been represented by his Antarctica music (29); the Penguin Ballet number is kind of adorable.)
VASKS Cello Concerto
When you program the Australian premiere of something unfamiliar, it’s not often the letters flood in, all with some variant of “I wasn’t expecting to like this piece at all and it turned out to be a highlight of the season.” (Yess!)
As a final note… I discovered after I finished that, quite without realising it, I hadn’t chosen any works that were technically 20th century but which spiritually (to my ears) belonged in the 19th. So no Rachmaninoff, no Mahler, no Elgar, no Richard Strauss. I guess that tells you something about the effect the label “20th century” has on my brain.
I send my regrets to Messrs Adès, Berg, Britten, Debussy, Edwards, Gershwin, Hindemith, Janáček, Meale, Messiæn, Nancarrow, Poulenc, Schoenberg, Schultz, Sculthorpe, Weill and Who-Killed-Cock-Robin, as well as the Misses Panufnik and Kats-Chernin. Some of you did just fine without me, I’m glad to see.