Arts: Soul confirming

MUSIC Miracles Royal Albert Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
When I was at school, anyone involved in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme was thought a bit of a nerd, but things change, it seems. On Thursday the Royal Albert Hall was packed for Miracles: The Concert, presented in association with the Award and, though there was smart and there was grungy, nerdy seemed thin on the ground. The Miracles Project is a west London community programme devised by the chamber orchestra London Musici and its conductor Mark Stephenson, who is joint artistic director with Paul Gladstone Reid. Using funds supplied by the Duke's scheme, and local councils, the orchestra unites would-be musicians with professionals. This was the unveiling of the results.

The opening section of the concert allowed groups from the boroughs involved to show off the work they'd produced. We had militaristic calisthenics and formation dancing, we had rappers and a little white rock, we even had highlights from Bugsy Malone, in costume. And everyone performed as if this were their only stab at Fame. If it was more end-of-term talent contest than anything, what was surprising was that, despite claims of diversity, the results were so homogenised. I don't know the demographics of the boroughs involved but, on this evidence, African, Asian and most Caribbean musics have been supplanted by soul music and its derivatives; nor was there the slightest trace of classical music (nor country music, come to that). What happened to pluralism and multi-culturalism?

The climax of the concert was Miracles, a new work by Paul Gladstone Reid, which he describes as "a contemporary mystery opera". The principle here was the same, that professionals perform alongside raw young talent. Reid provided the music, a set of discrete songs linked in a rather shaky structure outlined by a narrator: "four symbolic figures from the subconscious and spiritual world" help seven "typical personalities" (The Sensationalist, The Optimist, The Cynic and so on) to find themselves and build a better world.

Well, nobody said opera had to make sense. Ask Wagner. On second thoughts, don't mention Wagner. The problem starts there, with ideas that "opera" is a superior form. That's why musicians in other genres are so eager to use the term. It's very 1970s to call your work an "opera" when what you really mean is "concept album", and there was something rather 1970s about Miracles: glitter and sparkle, choreography out of Pan's People, pseudo-soul uplift.

In some ways such projects nullify criticism. Think positive, and you're a wishy-washy liberal; be negative, and you're propagating rigid hierarchies. Perhaps all that's worth saying is that I hope everyone involved in Miracles goes on to enjoy the richness of contemporary musical life, if they don't already. What I fear is that, under the guise of self-expression, musical forms already bolstered by the muscle of multi-national dollars continue to lord it over the marginal, the dispossessed and the experimental.