CLASSICAL MUSIC / If it's Monday, it must be minimalism

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The Independent Culture
HANGING in the Sickert exhibition at the Royal Academy is a small picture of domestic tension - a man, a woman and an iron- frame bed - entitled Early Morning, Camden Town but with a note attached explaining that it also answers to the name Summer in Naples. Clearly, narrative values in art are open to negotiation, even in a figurative context where the basic matter of the piece is obvious. And in music the negotiating parameters are broadest of all. History is littered with examples of composers who ask their audience to listen beyond the notes for an implied storyline or some kind of synaesthetic parallel that different ears will hear in different ways. And when composers ask you to hear colours in their music, then you are on the most unstable of territories.

Michael Torke's music asks you to hear colours; and not just colours but images of other non- musical phenomena like movements, gestures and - in a new work premiered by the London Sinfonietta on Wednesday at the South Bank - days of the week. Torke is the hot young talent of American minimalism who made his reputation from scores with punchy titles such as Ecstatic Orange, Bright Blue Music and Adjustable Wrench; but the interest of his music is that it offers a material development on the brash, repetitive systems that hard-core, head-banger minimalism implies. His ideas are simple, but refined through complex rhythmic patterns into an almost baroque exuberance - baroque'n'roll, you might say, since the glossy textures of the writing and the persistently up-tempo beat owe as much to American pop as anything else.

Monday and Tuesday, the new piece, was a chip off that block: glitzy with the spangled tonal values of two vibraphones and piano fed into a smallish ensemble, but sophisticated in the tension it sets up between a strong underlying pulse and a driven syncopation that persistently distracts the ear from first beats of the bar. It didn't ask us to hear colours. But it did rely on a loosely programmed metaphor of how events recur in kind but not in substance over two imagined days - the two days of the title. For example, on a Monday you might make a phone call, have dinner, and go to bed with a novel. On Tuesday you might receive a phone call, meet for dinner, and go to bed with a novelist. The same but different. And that, effectively, is what happens in the piece: musical events - an abstract narrative - are charted in the opening section (Monday) then repeat in the next section (Tuesday) in altered terms.

The problem with this neat idea is that it's inconclusive. A more conventional structure would arrive at some summatory judgement on the events. Torke merely offers two potential versions of the same scenario: hear it this way, hear it that, and go home. There's no resolution. But there is, meanwhile, a brilliant manipulation of rhythm, highly sprung so that the music barely touches ground, and an assertive, dazzlingly white-smiled confidence about the writing that's as devastating as it is attractive. You come out of it enfeebled by its vigour, feeling like the thin, pale torso on a beach of Californian lifeguards. At least, I did. You, of course, might hear it differently; though we'd agree on the superb performance by the Sinfonietta under Lothar Zagrosek, which is about to be recorded on CD.

The Scandinavian Festival at the Barbican delivered two of its prize events this week: each of them an example of a great Nordic symphonist - Sibelius and Nielsen yet again - disguising symphonic works as vocal ones and doing it on a scale that doesn't wholly come off but makes an impact nevertheless. Sibelius's Kullervo is an early work that might have sent his career in a Mahlerian direction but for the fact that he disowned it after the first performance and consigned it to a limbo where it has remained: the major missing link in our understanding of his development, barely known beyond Finland. Written for massed forces (orchestra, chorus, soloists), it is in part a nationalist polemic that sets texts from the Kalevala with a primitivism that gives no indication of the formal subtleties Sibelius was later famous for. But three of its five movements are symphonic, given solely to the orchestra and amounting to a classic sonata form, rondo and scherzo. And the tension between these two lives of the piece is what makes it so remarkable - superbly caught here by Colin Davis, the LSO, and a spectacular assembly of Finnish voices in a performance which fortuitously fell on Finnish Independence Day.

That Carl Nielsen's biblical opera Saul and David is also a symphony with voices is probably what has kept it out of world repertory. It has never had a professional staging in Britain; and Monday's concert performance with Andrew Davis and the BBCSO, magnificent as it was, suggested why. It's simply too well-written, with a tightness that integrates the vocal lines too thoroughly into the orchestral argument to leave the singers room for independent manoeuvre as character. And the chorus-writing is similarly constrained: solidly homophonic, largely unison, or else the kind of studied Brahmsian polyphony that comes, almost, in quotes. But that said, Saul and David is a stunning work: vigorous, bold, and with a model libretto that gets straight to the point and manages to invent some love interest on the way (conventionally heterosexual, as opposed to the David and Jonathan scenario the Bible offers). With a fine cast of Danish singers, the BBCSO on top form, and Andrew Davis in his element, this performance made a strong claim for the piece; and I noticed several British opera house officials in the audience taking note of it. A few years ago Opera North took on the risk of Nielsen's Maskarade and it paid off handsomely. Another risk with Saul and David must be worth considering, now.