Composers' Eyes on Masterprize


There are probably few things composers prize for their work quite as much as performances and audiences. So if you take a conventional juried competition with a $45,000 prize and add in extensive broadcast and recorded performances, you may have the perfect lure for the postmodern composer. That is exactly what a new international competition, Masterprize, has done.

"Generally speaking, I've never paid much attention to international competitions," says USC professor and composer Stephen Hartke, whose "The Ascent of the Equestrian in a Balloon" is a finalist in the first Masterprize contest. "I always wondered what the point was--any competition is a crapshoot to begin with. But Masterprize was interesting because there was so much performance involved. I really can't believe the level of commitment to actually getting the music out there."

Part of that commitment involves another Masterprize innovation: Not only do they want audiences to hear the works, they want them to help determine the winner.

Fifteen semifinalist pieces, winnowed by one panel in August 1997 from the original 1,000-plus entries, were broadcast many times by the BBC and other stations, mostly in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. Though five of the semifinalists were from the U.S., Masterprize wasn't able to attract much radio support in the U.S. and has had little presence in this country.

After a different set of judges pared the 15 down to six in February, those finalists were rerecorded by Daniel Harding and the London Symphony Orchestra for a CD distributed with the March issue of BBC Music Magazine.

Listeners were then encouraged to vote for their favorite by mail to various international collection points, digitally at the Masterprize Web site (, where audio clips of the works are available, and by phone in Russia and China. The popular vote carries equal weight with that of yet another jury.

The winner will be announced today at a gala concert in London of all six finalists, again played by Harding and the LSO. (Although the concert will be broadcast by more than 300 stations worldwide, as of press time, it's not on the schedule of any Los Angeles station; according to Brenda Pennell, general manager of KUSC-FM [91.5], the classical radio station of Hartke's home institution, lack of direct BBC affiliation was a stumbling block.) In addition to Hartke, the composers are Russian-Swedish Victoria Borisova-Ollas, Britisher Andrew March, Italian Daniele Gasparini, Australian Carl Vine and Chinese American Zhou Long.

British investment banker John McLaren started developing the idea that would become Masterprize about five or six years ago. Initial funding came from a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who does not want to be named, McLaren says, and sponsorships from hi-fi maker Audio Note and the international banking group Coutts. But the principal partners in Masterprize are the BBC, the London Symphony Orchestra and the EMI recording company.

"I was saddened by a strange paradox," McLaren says. "We've seen an amazing increase of interest in classical music and an increase in the quality and quantity of performances and recordings--seemingly fertile conditions for new music--but in so many countries new music has been marginalized. I'm convinced that if the established repertoire is not regularly supplemented with new literature, it will eventually atrophy."

Most efforts to address this problem center on performers and presenters, who are really only middlemen. McLaren chose to concentrate on the two poles of the process, composers and listeners.

"I proposed a catalyst: Offer composers a chance to address a large audience worldwide and offer listeners the chance to hear new music more than once and some respect in the form of a real vote."

The basic Masterprize requirements were simple: an orchestral piece eight to 12 minutes long that had not been previously broadcast. Happy with the results so far, McLaren says that these requirements will also guide the second running of Masterprize, which is now receiving applications and will present its winners in concert in the autumn of 2000.

Like most of the works in this year's competition, Hartke's piece was not written expressly for Masterprize. It was composed for Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra and premiered by them in 1995. Named after an 18th century engraving, it is dedicated to Hartke's 2-year-old son and evokes the big-band jazz the composer's father loved, as well as Ives and even, the composer suggests, something Britten-esque in its slow music.

Masterprize urgencies notwithstanding, the 45-year-old Hartke is not convinced that the gulf between composer and listener is as wide as it was a generation ago. The former composer-in-residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra seems to have found performers and audiences for his music, the newest of which is a piano sonata written for Vicki Ray, which she will premiere on the Piano Spheres series in Pasadena on May 12. Hartke's most recent recording is New World Records, featuring New York's Riverside Symphony, conducted by George Rothman, and violinist Michelle Makarski in his Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 2.

Allowing listeners a say in the competition outcome might have tempted composers to a lighter style, but both McLaren and Hartke were impressed with the substance and spirit of all the semifinalists.

"You have to admit, it was an invitation to a certain kind of pandering," Hartke says. "But they had a very strong panel [that selected the semifinalists] and there is quite an array of disparate styles.

"Do I compose for the audience?" Hartke asks rhetorically. "Of course. After all, I'm a member of the audience too. My music is largely a reflection of my experience as a listener. I write what I would like to hear and hope others will want to also."

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