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  Annual Review - The Southbank`s `Luigi Nono - Fragments of Venice`  Bevillia at 13:46 on 20 December 2008

As we reach the end of the year, it has given me considerable time to reflect on the acheivement of the Southbank's 'Luigi Nono - Fragments of Venice'. The festival that concluded in May (with two wonderful UK premiere performances of the composer's magnum opus Prometeo - tagedia dell' ascolta) has unquestionably proven invaluable in helping to fill a much neglected critical appreciation and knowledge of one of the greatest figures of 20th century music. Even if such early masterpieces as Nono's tri-parte Epitaph per Frederico Garcia Lorca, La Vicotrie de Guernica, the 1956 landmark Il canto sospeso and Intolleranza 1960 were not included, we were compensated with Incontri, A floresta cheia e vida jovem (which received a revelatory performance in October 2007), Omaggio a Kurtag to name but a few. Add to that the long awaited and belated premiere of Prometeo and this festival must surely rank among the most important ever staged at the Southbank.

With all this in mind (and all that has been staged since), it is difficult to sympathise with Norman Lebrecht's earlier prediction that the Southbank's new programme 'failed to live up to expectations'. OK, in some ways it is perhaps emblematic of our British predeliction for the 'quick-fix' solution, as we often overlook the fact that kulturand enlightenment takes time (and individual effort). Above all, it means repeated performances and an exploration into other neglected works (of Nono's oeuvre). What about Diario Pollaco - Composition No 2, Per Bastiana, Ein Gespenst im der Welt, Risonanze erranti, and yes, ....what about Intolleranza which still awaits its UK premiere now nearly 50 years after its first performance?

Nono remained at the forefront of the avant-garde throughout his life, yet was shunned during his last decade by the British musical establishment (and to some extent still is). By contrast, his influence is now paramount to the new music in mainland Europe. It is worth recalling that Prometeo was given its first perfromance some 24 years ago in Venice. With that in mind, the UK premiere was a sorry reminder of our state of affairs. Ah, Britian lags behind!... has been as slow as a snail when it comes to absorbing musical innovations. And it seems to have been an unchanging was true 50 years ago, it was the same 100 years ago.

Perhaps it has been a failure of British mentality?; our disastrous inclination to downgrade everything to mere entertainment, coupled with a particular aversion to to the poetic, the sublime, the metaphysical and transcendent (why not?). Add to that those impregnable bureaucratic office-types who understand little about the value of art and it's potential to truly enlighten soceity. I am speaking of conservative festival directors, stuffy-insipid, close-minded critics, or music faculties at universities where real musical innovation is often confined within a purely academic sphere, hardly ever reaching the wider public - in festivals such as the Proms, for example. Hence the UK rarely produces well known, influential pioneering composers of genius.

In contrast to the remarkable initiatives shown by the Southbank and the Royal Academy of Music in mounting this festival, we have the conspicous absense of sponsorship from the BBC. Let's face it, the music of Luigi Nono has been one of the very real cultural failings of the BBC over the past decades (as proven by their continued omission of the composer's music from the Proms). As Michael Finnissy remarked to me, their ignorance of Nono has been 'inexcusable'.

If I had to criticise Luigi Nono - Fragments of Venice, it would be for the lack of public advertisement, and as John Allison rightly noted in The Telegraph, for the absense of an informative and authoritative guidebook (which incidentally reflects the current barreness of Nono scholarship in the UK). Indeed, this stands in marked contrast to the 200-or-so page booklet produced for the Paris Autumn festival on Nono in 1988, when Prometeo was given it's French premiere.

Travelling on the London underground in October 2007 and April this year, I noticed the huge billboards advertising Gergiev's Mahler Symphony-cycle at the Barbican, and later the Southbank's Messiaen festival. Leaving aside for a moment whether Nono would have approved (!) why could not the same have been done for 'Fragments of Venice'? Of all these composers, Nono is the least well-known, and yet, he is arguably the most relevant to our contemporary world. For his music acts as a warning and indictment against our engulfing capitalism and the profoundly degrading effect this has had on our culture, including music.

The lack of poster advertisment seemed to be reflected even in the foyers of both the Queen Elizabeth and Royal Festival Halls. (Perhaps the Southbank were trying to give the impression of a pop-venue for economic reasons - so not upset their roster of visiting celebrity 'artistes'. However, the same was true of the RAM who, by contrast to their Ligeti festival in 1995, featured no information or articles posted in the entrance hall. Indeed, you could be forgiven for mistaking Luigi Nono - Fragments of Venice as festival taking place for the privileged knowing few. Another point was that Prometeo was mistakenly billed as Nono's 'final masterpiece', and in the light of his later (if not greater) acheivements - Risonanze erranti (1986), Camminantes....Ayacuchu (1987), La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura (1988-89) and Hey que caminar sonando (1989) - I would have to disagree.

These are, however, but small qualms besides the tremendous artistic success that was the festival as a whole. So hats off to Marshall Marcus (who deserves the utmost congratulations) and his team, for their audacity in bringing the music of this great Italian composer to Britain. For Luigi Nono's genuis - so often neglected and dismissed by our music faculties, festival directors, admimistrators and critics - is perhaps the foremost example that could bring a much needed revoltuion in British musical consciousness. As Nono remarked, there should be no division between art and life. Hopefully, we will see the beginnings of a UK renaissance in performances of his work.

Stephen Beville - pianist and composer,(c) 2008.


Sorry about the spelling mistakes folks! I wrote in haste (not realising that once you post, you are not able to edit). Alas, spelling is not one of my fortes! I will post a corrected version under the Reviews section.