Barber's Shut Up and Dance, which was commissioned by the BBC and premiered by the orchestra in 1994, opened the programme quite brilliantly. Inspired by the rhythms and textures of both contemporary dance music and Balinese Gamelan, the piece has the rare virtues of being short in duration, continuously witty and intensely joyful. Though it's relatively simple, the orchestra dispatched it with due decorum, and the moire effect of the tonal colours continued to shimmer in the mind's eye long after its conclusion.
Nothing, however, could have prepared you for the world premiere of Graham Fitkin's Clarinet Concerto, Agnostic - a Festival commission - which followed. Though Fitkin has been producing really interesting and engaging work for some time now - usually hard, flinty pieces with uncompromising titles such as Tough, Gruff and Blunt - this was, by any standards, a quantum leap forward. Opening with a long, Mahler-like breath of strings, the soloist David Campbell - who played superbly - was forced through a deeply moving progression of increasingly querulous and turned-in-on-themselves harmonic loops, while the strings set a sinister background of brutally stark Psycho-like stabs. The resolution was almost achingly Romantic, British pastoral updated to an edgy, utterly contemporary, urban landscape. Though to say so sounds suspiciously like over-kill, this may turn out to be one of the most important pieces of the age, and it demands to be heard again soon.
The Violin Concerto by John Adams, which comprised the second half, has become, since its composition in 1993, a kind of symbolic token of the mainstream acceptance of American minimalism - or at least of Adams - by orchestras world-wide, and it was performed with great elan by the star soloist, Kurt Nikkanen. This, however, is perhaps a minimalism that has conceded much of its aesthetic raison d'etre to the Romantic demands of the modern orchestra, with the virtuosity of the soloist occurring at the expense of the ensemble. Nikkanen - who, the programme notes informed us, is a keen tennis enthusiast - even interpolated a few Jimmy Connors- like grunts into his dizzyingly effective performance. He was good, too, but Fitkin's Concerto remained the prize of the evening.