An obsession with composers' birthdays is turning our orchestras into state-funded tribute bands

2013 was an easy one for festival programmers. Wagner, Verdi and Britten all have major anniversaries this year. But doesn't organising a festival around something as arbitrary as a composer's birthday undermine the fundamental value of the work?

The men and women responsible for deciding what’s performed at our major classical music festivals, opera houses and concert halls must have had a glint in their eye when they saw 2013 coming. This was the year to kick-back, relax and use up some of that that surplus annual leave: this was the year that would programme itself. All the artistic directors had to do was draw up lists of the most obvious works by the "big three" anniversary composers – Wagner, Verdi and Britten – then spend a few weeks deciding who should sing/direct/conduct what. So, pretty much what they’ve been doing every other year of late, only this time with an even shorter list of composers to worry about.

Nobody was looking forward to Wagner’s bicentenary year more than I was. I love Wagner, I need Wagner and I can’t imagine life without Wagner. But I haven’t had to imagine life without Wagner for the last ten years, because his operas are so good that they’re performed all the time. What I’m really hoping for in the two-hundredth year since his birth is for someone to rock my understanding of Wagner’s art to a significant degree; to show me something so profound or extraordinary about him that it alters the path of his music into my body and teaches me something new about life.

As much as I’d like to think it will – and I’m still holding out some hope – I’m not sure seven of his operas performed just as the composer wouldn’t have wanted at this summer’s Proms (in concert, un-staged) will do that. At least in Germany they’ve got a national conversation going. The Rheinoper Düsselforf’s Nazi-themed Tannhäuser (not, contrary to most reporting, a particularly iconoclastic starting-point given opera directors’ frequent dalliances with Nazism) was pulled and hey presto, Wagner got the birthday present he deserves: a passionate, unbridled and often dirty discussion about the value and message of his work that simply wouldn’t have come from a concert performance, however musically revelatory.

Verdi and Britten are outstanding and endlessly nourishing composers, too. But that’s precisely why their operas are performed year-in, year-out all over the world. If we’re to celebrate their anniversaries this year (200 and 100 year respectively) we need to think imaginatively about what those milestones mean and what opportunities they present. There have been well over a dozen separate production runs of operas by Benjamin Britten in the UK in the last five years, so clearly opting to "put on a Britten opera" doesn’t cut the mustard as a celebratory act unless it brings something profoundly new to the table.

In truth, I worry that our increasing reliance on composer anniversaries is rooted in something even more dangerous than chronic lack of imagination: an umbilical obsession with the past. You can hardly get through a morning on the classical radio stations these days without hearing a piece composed by someone "who was born on this day in 1847". Fascinating. Now try telling us something about the music that’s actually relevant to our lives in 2013 – about those feelings of frustration, fear, paranoia, community, love and hope that have fuelled great art for centuries and that commute daily through the minds of the 21st-century beings who flock in large numbers to see new art, new theatre and new film. If we’re insistent on programming an organic art form via arbitrary milestones – which composer birthdates usually are – we undermine the relevance of the works themselves. That, and our performing institutions will become curiosities: state-supported tribute bands knocking out ‘old favourites’ for the sake of nostalgia and remembrance.

Contrary to my flippant opening paragraph, of course, we all know that programmers face treacherously difficult tasks. We also know that a concert performance of Parsifal or Götterdämmerung can be an overwhelming and provocative experience (though the last time the Proms presented the latter opera, a mere 6 years ago, it certainly wasn’t).

And there have been illuminating projects this year – Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh; ENO’s scintillating shortened La Traviata which got the heckles of this magazine’s music critic up; and just last Friday a lesson in how to illuminate Wagner with revelatory anniversary context from the pucky, revisionist little orchestra Aurora. You have to admire Welsh National Opera, too, for opting to stage a (relatively) new work in Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream for its Wagner celebrations. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think these examples are the norm. The norm, in fact, has been operatic revivals, operas in concert, and orchestras playing remarkably similar selections of orchestral works.

So here’s a thought. While those bold projects focussed on the biggest names should in fact be happening every year we continue to hold their creators in such high regard, maybe we should turn our anniversary obsession in the direction of those composers who are crying out for rehabilitation. At classical music marketing school I was told that an anniversary is one of the best sales tools available. Splendid, let’s use it to big-up those birthday composers who we don’t hear about in any other year.

Paul Hindemith, Witold Lutosławski, Francis Poulenc and Kenneth Leighton all have anniversaries this year and they all wrote music that’s fascinating, relevant (mostly), highly-crafted and which often spiked the creative status-quo as dictated by their more conventional colleagues.

The Proms is having an admirable stab at Lutosławski this summer – great news, given the festival’s unique communal atmosphere that’s such a lubricant to critical reappraisal. But there’s only one piece of Poulenc and there’s not a jot of Leighton nor a hint of Hindemith to counter the 1627 minutes of Wagner. If the arts exist ‘to ameliorate our fear of the unknown’ as the baritone Thomas Hampson eloquently suggested they do in a recent interview, it’s these figures we should be putting on a pedestal for one year only, not the ones who are there the rest of the time anyway.

An institution like the Proms risks becoming a state-sponsored tribute act if it fails to innovate. Photograph: BBC Pictures.
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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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