Beware of pandas running amok

Tommaso Placidi found wild animals hard to handle on his debut.
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The Independent Culture
The naffly titled BT Celebration Series masks perhaps the most enlightened sponsorship scheme worldwide in orchestral music. Now in its third year, it's a collaborative venture with the Association of British Orchestras - the orchestras' "talking shop" - whereby an orchestral commission is not only granted to a grateful composer but an astonishingly large number of orchestras throughout the nation are roped in to repeat the work. It would appear to be the height of orchestral profligacy with all those rehearsals to pay for that a single orchestra is not chosen to perform the work up and down the land.

That would be to defeat an important principle: new work needs to feel "owned" and projected as such. So between now and the end of June no fewer than seven orchestras - the CBSO, Halle, Ulster, Northern Sinfonia, Orchestra of St John's, Smith Square, Royal Philharmonic and City of London Sinfonia will be performing The Creatures Indoors in a place near you, all thanks to the profits of BT.

This year's commission, unlike the two in previous years (from James MacMillan and Richard Rodney Bennett), is a collaboration. The English poet Jo Shapcott and the American composer Stephen Montague were given instructions to write a piece attractive to children and adults. Echoing the sentiments of Colette in Ravel's L' Enfant et les Sortileges, Shapcott has written a series of completely enchanting poems that creepily emphasise the surreal dangers of "creatures indoors"; especially when they happen to be rattlesnakes, vultures, sharks or penguins. The 13 sections include "fly" interludes - for houseflies, bluebottles, blackflies, horseflies - that link the animal portraits. A largely non-singing narrator tells the tale.

The London Symphony Orchestra with Benjamin Luxon gave The Creatures Indoors lift-off last Thursday at the Barbican under the somewhat hapless hands of the Italian conductor, Tommaso Placidi, who was making his LSO debut as winner of the 1996 Donatella Flick Conducting Competition.

"Give me bamboo shoots. My panda's run amok. He's tearing up my bedroom; the family's panic-struck," seemed to make little sense to him, but no doubt this was fierce debut material. Luxon, in splendid avuncular form, was obliged to work hard to project Shapcott's words, not helped by a particularly ropy sound system. But the audience was warmly receptive to the invitation to hiss like a rattlesnake and buzz like flies; hidden musical boxes added an enchanting effect to "Panda Power". Montague uses most of the "special effects" available to a large orchestra with large dollops of flexitones, tam-tam, tremolos and string harmonic glissandi. The music is straight forward and approachable but adds nothing to Bartok or HK Gruber in similar territory. Placidi, likewise, added nothing to performances of Strauss's Til Eulenspiegel and Stravinsky's Firebird suite. But then what new tricks are available to an inexperienced conductor with a world-class orchestra? His Puccinian approach to Stravinsky seemed ill- advised, his grand, flailing gestures mucking up any rhythmic clarity. Keeping out of the way seemed the best approach in Mozart's Oboe concerto, given a fresh, unshowy performance by the LSO's principal oboe, Roy Carter.