Classical: Little wonder

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THE HOXTON New Music Days represent a first attempt at a more coherent concert series to run in tandem with Almeida Opera than has been achieved since the demise of Pierre Audi's fabulous Contemporary Music Festival in 1990. The brainchild of the composer John Woolrich, these programmes occupy several venues, including the Almeida Theatre itself.

Chief among these is Hoxton Hall in Shoreditch: a 19th-century music hall now run by Quakers. Situated in the hinterland where post-yuppie development has yet to overwhelm a still tight-knit East End community, this otherwise rather shabby building's small rectangular theatre, with its double balconies and curious three-tier but tiny stage, offers a surprisingly conducive and flexible space for the small-scale events programmed there this year.

With a selflessness which could be pondered by one or two other composers who currently direct British festivals, Woolrich has included none of his own works. His Composers' Ensemble does, however, play the central performing role. Most invigorating on the first weekend was Friday's main programme, the first of Hoxton's four Portrait concerts.

This one was devoted to Vinko Globokar, 65 this year, whose role as an ace trombonist of the avant-garde has often overshadowed his own, actually quite significant and sometimes very absorbing, activities as a composer. All five works here dated from the mid-eighties onwards. Globokar himself performed two solos.

Oblak semen (Cloud of Seeds) for trombone is an almost literally all- singing, all-dancing, sometimes very funny piece involving, among much else, a bowl of water into which the instrument's bell is frequently dipped. Corporel - "a drama for and on the body", for which the composer stripped to the waist - is an even more compelling tour de force of vocal and gestural activities, by turns amusing and disturbing.

Three further ensemble compositions demonstrated the Composers' acting as well as musical skills. In two of them, Mary Wiegold was the vocally adept and theatrically thoroughly convincing soloist: this was the best work I've seen from her in a long time. Another impressive display of female declamation followed immediately, as Linda Hirst brilliantly intoned the first two movements of Kurt Schwitters' wonderfully crazy Ur-Sonate.

The concluding, surprisingly dynamic performance of Stockhausen's Japan by a group of young British composers under Peter Wiegold's direction began a valuable young-Brits theme that continued through Saturday's more modest workshop events - involving four London Sinfonietta players and including a rivetting account of Stockhausen's Spiral by the saxophonist Simon Haram - and culminated in Sunday's concert at the Almeida Theatre by the Brunel Ensemble, conducted by Christopher Austin.

Of the four short new pieces heard at the start of this mainly British programme, I especially admired Morgan Hayes' very intense "Divided Nettings" and Tansy Davies's cunningly ambiguous-sounding "Hommage to Messiaen".

Austin - whose gestures look oddly gauche for such an apparently effective conductor - could cultivate more dynamic and tonal variety from his undeniably skilful musicians. More from Hoxton next week.

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