CLASSICAL MUSIC BBC Premieres Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
The debut of a new orchestral work implies continuing strength both in contemporary music and in those who commission it. With the privatisation of Radio 3 a likely target for any future Tory government, (from which the BBC Orchestras would not be unaffected), it's good to report that in the past three weeks the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave two world premieres and the welcome revival of another recent piece. As vital to our cultural life as the National Gallery, the orchestra merits all the plaudits it can get.

Fifty this year like Radio 3 itself, Colin Matthews topped and tailed two pre-existing works with a brief Intrada and thoughtful choral finale to make Renewal, conducted by Oliver Knussen on 29 September at a Festival Hall celebration of the actual anniversary. In true Third Programme style, the last movement, "Metamorphosis", set apposite words from Ovid on the teachings of Pythagoras: "Nothing in the whole world endures unchanged ... everything is renewed". There was much to admire in this setting, from the background sonority of tolling pedal Cs with their lack of rhetoric to the tactful ending of quiet optimism. Set in its place beside the scherzo Broken Symmetry and Threnody, fashioned from an earlier memorial piece for Toru Takemitsu, it also showed the composer's skill at working on the largest scale. For Matthews, Renewal and his recent Cello Concerto mark three decades of notable achievement. His next move will be all the more intriguing.

Judith Weir's Moon and Stars, slotted into the orchestra's Walton series at the same venue last Wednesday, was shorter and quieter, though turning, like Renewal, to the medium of words for its conclusion. "For all the contrasts of style between these pieces - muscular, brass-dominated discords versus sensuous stellar harmonies - their choice of texts shared a common quest for a transcendental vision minus the trappings of religion. That Weir chose a striking view of nature from the work of Emily Dickinson was very much part of the original commission. Searching for an astronomical image for a piece to be played in the Royal Albert Hall, she found in this favourite poem a suitably awesome idea: that the universe is as large as we can imagine it, with extra bits attached.

Stepping in to replace an indisposed Andrew Davis, Vernon Handley coped splendidly at short notice. For Naresh Sohal's Lila, of which Davis is the dedicatee, Martyn Brabbins took the baton at the Festival Hall on Sunday to conduct an ambitious symphonic poem that explored another universe: the inner world of meditation. A composer of sparing yet always compelling production, Sohal offered a powerful antidote to the putative view of yoga as passive dreaming. Six paragraphs of his Lila, each prefaced by an arresting image of double bass and timpani pulsations, depicted the mental turbulence that this discipline seeks to pacify, before the seventh sent Sarah Leonard to the upper heights of the soprano voice to depict the cosmic union. Like the mind itself, Lila was a boiling cauldron of ideas that had nothing in common with the cliched image of "meditation" music. There were striking roles for saxophone, wind machine and tuned percussion. Play it again, BBC, as soon as possible.