CLASSICAL MUSIC : A scintillating symphony of the streets

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The Independent Culture
I ONCE visited John Cage in New York and, sitting in his apartment on a sweltering day as the Big Apple stewed around us and sirens/ghetto- blasters/road-works shook the open windows, I asked him how he bore the noise. The reply was predictable. "You call it noise," he said, "I call it music" - echoing the admittance of the everyday into the temple of art that was a feature of his work.

But he had no monopoly on inclusiveness. Composers from Varse to Gershwin have taken the sounds of the street into the concert hall; Mahler filled his scores with reconstituted vernacular and modelled part of his Tenth Symphony on the sound of a funeral heard through the open window of a Manhattan hotel. And there's yet another open window on the New York streets in Steve Reich's City Life which had its UK premire from the London Sinfonietta at the QEH on Wednesday.

Steve Reich premires are events: he has a following. And, as though in revolt against the "minimalist" label that has been attached to him, his recent work has been on the grand scale of world-touring blockbusters. Two years ago came The Cave which was like the News at Ten set to music: an impressively slick synthesis of socio-political documentary and hi-tech spectacle that made some interesting, Janacek-ian points about the relationship between speech and melody. And City Life follows suit, although with no visuals or (on-stage) voices: just a mixed instrumental ensemble and two sampler keyboards "loaded" with a soundscape of Manhattan living (pile-drivers, car alarms, police commands . . .) that builds into a lavish texture. That the sounds are sampled is important. Had they been on tape they'd be a fixture and inflexible in the delivery; but programmed into samplers, the alarms, etc, can be played with all the pitch and rhythmic possibilities of notes on a piano, and the spontaneity of true performance rather than the mere press-button replay of a past event.

This isn't academic: the immediacy of City Life is tangible, with an exhilarating vibrancy beyond the routine hallucinogenic high of minimalist scores. And for all its aggressive ingredients, the effect is disarmingly beautiful, as though a storm of urban anger has been bathed in calm. The five-movement structure begins with and returns to a chorale worthy of Aaron Copland being pastoral. And hearing the unbroken line of those movements alongside Reich's earlier clarinet classic New York Counterpoint, also in the programme, it's clear that his facility for the through-development of ideas has matured apace.

Above all, though, City Life sets the seal on Reich's progress from a composer primarily engaged in rhythm to a composer steeped in rich, deep- textured, rather glamorous orchestral lyricism. For all my reservations about the commonplace productivity of minimalist music, I was beguiled by this piece - and, in fact, by everything else on the Sinfonietta's programme (conductor Markus Stenz) which is now off on a Contemporary Music Network Tour. John Adams's Chamber Symphony is a virtuosic minimalist homage to Schoenberg which raises the currency of minimalism to a level you'd never find in Philip Glass. And although Tom Ades's Living Toys makes an awkward travelling companion for Reich and Adams, it's good that such a bold, resourceful piece from an outstanding young musician should be sharing the exposure. Living Toys so races with ideas that it feels punch-drunk by the end; but after several hearings I'm increasingly impressed by its abundant vigour, wit and (not least) its invention of a striking new percussion instrument. The hanging Jiffy bag.

The Isle of Wight International Oboe Competition sounds like a contradiction in terms but is in fact a new project - in its second year - with potential. How many oboe competitions are there internationally? Not many. And under the governance of Lady Barbirolli (aka Evelyn Rothwell, one of the leading oboists of her time) with eminent judges from Europe and America, the 1995 finals last weekend attracted some serious and wide-ranging talent. From the minute I stepped off the ferry I seemed to be engulfed by earnest, polyglot discussions about reeds - largely in German. And it was notable that four of the six semi-finalists had studied in Germany, three of them at the same conservatory in Karlsruhe. Only one contestant came from and had studied in Britain, and that was Virginia Shaw who took joint First Prize with a Karlsruhe-trained Spaniard, Juan-Manuel Gonzales. Both played well, and I've no issue with the verdict. But an event like this highlights the extreme variations in technique and tone (not to say pitch) that exist across the international spectrum of woodwind playing. Gonzales (a clean, focused, rather chiselled sound) and Shaw (heavier, thicker, English-elegiac) belonged to such different cultures that any choice between them would have been determined as much by taste as by objective assessment. I can see why the judges ducked the issue. And on the subject of ducks, there was a likeable and worthwhile new oboe concerto commissioned for the finals from John McCabe. Lightly scored, haunted by nocturnal memories of Britten and neo-classical ones of Nielsen, it was itself memorable for a Nielsenesque figure of repeated notes that, in the heavier tone of Virginia Shaw, sounded exactly like a bird-watcher's mating call. Unintentional no doubt.

Close on the heels of Purcell's semi-opera King Arthur at Covent Garden (reviewed last week) came another, The Indian Queen, at the QEH. Masterminded by Robert King, conducting his own King's Consort, it was fully staged in something like "authentic" terms (ie ostrich feathers) as opposed to the streamlined stylishness of the King Arthur. But this was not museological camp. On the contrary, King took the sensible view that the spoken text of The Indian Queen is messy and silly enough to merit radical abbreviation, clearing some space for the music to take centre-stage. What's more, he overturned the standard semi-opera segregation of speech and song, re- routing musical numbers into the body of the dialogue and even underlaying speech with soloistic accompaniment in the manner of melodrama.

Purist Purcellians may sniff at this, but The Indian Queen has always been a score of unsurpassable beauty denied a performing life by an unstageable text. Any intervention to promote its viability gets my vote; and the result here justified every nip and tuck. It was an utterly engaging show, less stylish than King Arthur but with better singers and, I think, better conducted. Among all the projects for the Purcell tercentenary, it will take some beating.

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