Classical London Musici St John's Smith Square, London

'It's all rather depressing. Modernist / conservative posturing has stupefied creativity for far too long'
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The Independent Culture
A Live Flame, In Memoriam John Smith, MP by leading "Heckler" Keith Burstein had its premiere by London Musici last Wednesday. By the time this review is published there will have been a predictable reaction. From some (though not all) conservative quarters there will have been loud cheers. Here was a composer bold enough to write in terms that probably wouldn't have startled Elgar or the younger Vaughan Williams - a defiant blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of modernists. From more progressively inclined corners there will have been mingled groans and sneers: nostalgic drivel like this in Nineties Britain? And couldn't Burstein's drooling profile-writer even spell "avant-garde" correctly?

It's all rather depressing. Modernist / conservative posturing has stupefied thought and inhibited creativity for far too long. It's one of the first things in any age that dates, but while it lasts it hardens attitudes and prevents serious listening - just look at the injustices suffered by Brahms and Bruckner in late 19th-century Vienna. One of Burstein's main gripes about modernism is that it's a minority taste, while he wants to "communicate to the majority". But all classical concert music is a minority taste. If he wants to communicate to today's majorities - to speak in a truly "universal" language - he would be better off mimicking Michael Jackson or Barry Manilow than the early 20th-century English pastoralists.

All this would have been excusable if Burstein had succeeded musically. But A Live Flame is thin, pallid stuff beside the best Elgar and Vaughan Williams - or beside the best Gerald Finzi and John Ireland for that matter. It's hard not to see a critical intelligence at work in Wednesday's programme. The conductor Mark Stephenson and London Musici followed A Live Flame with something by one of the Hecklers' betes noires, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, producer of what one of them has entertainingly labelled "sonic sewage". Only An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise is folksily tuneful, mostly tonal and, in one place, endearingly funny, and it concludes with a spectacular piece of populist theatre - a bagpiper marches on to the stage in a blaze of D major. When I first heard it I wasn't quite convinced, but after Burstein's effort it felt like a titanic success. It got the biggest cheer of the evening; not that that will mean anything to the Hecklers, I'm sure.

There is just room to mention Julian Anderson's new Three Parts off the Ground, though it deserves a review to itself. The choreography, by Sara Matthews, performed by members of the Rambert Dance Company, didn't seem to add much to Anderson's ideas. But the music itself - without being spectacularly innovative nor eager to please - left a strong impression. Many young British composers invoke Stravinsky, but few seem to have learnt as deeply from him as Anderson. The technique and intellectual basis are solid; the sounds are obviously heard - and felt. Thanks to Stephenson and I Musici for performing him with such conviction - and for such a thought-provoking programme. May there be many more.

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