CLASSICAL MUSIC American Independents SBC, London

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The Independent Culture
The American composers Diamanda Galas and Michael Daugherty both have an ambivalent relationship to popular culture. Galas included songs by Johnny Cash and Phil Ochs in her solo concert at the RFH on Monday (launching the SBC's "American Independents" season), yet trashes the Goths who still form part of her audience base. Daugherty's latest composition, premiered by the London Sinfonietta in the QEH on Tuesday, is a tribute to Liberace. Yet the composer stresses the need to develop an independent alternative to the pop culture whose icons he cherishes.

Fast rising to the top of the heap in his home country, Daugherty seems bent on being dangerous, but is somewhat vague about the nature of his threat. Snap! (1987) - the first of two works by him in Tuesday's programme - is the earliest exercise in his present manner. Inspired by a scene in a lesser-known 1937 film in which James Cagney tap-dances on a large piano keyboard with a dance band on either side, this short ensemble piece translates the image by featuring two cymbal players in stereophonic collaboration and syncopated canons perambulating across the ensemble space. This could have proved fatuous or flakey. But hard-edged rhythmic unisons and taut, nervous energy help to make Snap! a genuine filtering of its original idea into an urgent, personal statement.

The new work, Tombeau de Liberace, seemed, despite its ingenuities, more indulgent. All the schlock, kitsch and fakery with which the late pianist surrounded himself has been poured into a 15-minute piano concerto, moving from the boogie-woogie of "Rhinestone Kickstep", through the cod religiosity of "How Do I Love Thee", via "Sequin Music", a cadenza using the notes painted on the wall surrounding Liberace's piano-shaped swimming pool, to the would-be showstopper "Candelabra Rhumba". As soloist, Paul Crossley did his best with all this, and there was even a candelabra on stage. But the mixture refused to ignite: more nice than truly naughty.

While it's great to see the Sinfonietta playing the previously untouchable Cage and Reich, the performances of the former's wacky and witty Credo in Us (or should it be Credo in US?) and the latter's Marimba Phase demonstrated how far these musicians still have to travel in such repertoire; the Reich was full of wrong notes. An atmospheric performance of the George Crumb classic, Ancient Voices of Children, conducted by Markus Stenz, with Christine Whittlesey a moving soprano soloist, was some compensation.

As for Galas's song sequence on Monday, I was intrigued to find her stylistic and emotional range much broader than I'd previously experienced: celebration as well as critique, if you like. Her own songs inject irony and discipline into a manner most obvious for its wildness, and she has the skill and presence both to sustain some rather mundane material and to effect sudden flights of fancy with conviction. The ear-splitting extended-voice techniques in fact diminished in importance as her performance progressed. It's probably heresy to say so, but I found her expert piano-playing had more musical interest than most of her vocal pyrotechnics.