Classical Music: Open your ears: America is on its way

Dylan Thomas Trilogy; Royal Festival Hall, London: London Symphony Orchestra Barbican, London
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As arts news in this country tends to vary between bad and worse, it's been a comfort in the past few weeks to catch a few announcements that were promisingly upbeat - including the news that the American conductor Leonard Slatkin has been appointed Andrew Davis's successor at the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Failing a sudden breakdown of relationship between Simon Rattle and Berlin, I can't think of a better man for the job.

Slatkin is articulate, intelligent, unstuffy and good with audiences. He's also a superb musician - perhaps not so energised as Andrew Davis, but effective, sharp, and able to turn ideas into action. Modernists might complain that his repertoire doesn't lovingly embrace the hard edge of the avant-garde, or even the fallout from the 2nd Viennese School. But his interests are contemporary enough for him to take on the minority pursuits for which the BBC SO exists.

And in his hands it may just be that the minority opens out - because Slatkin is a man who believes that new music and melody are not alternative propositions. His repertory with the BBC SO will probably develop along similar lines to that of Andre Previn with the LS0 during the 1960s, with plenty of core 20th-century British works and a cautious selection of living talents like Turnage and MacMillan. But beyond that - and this is where Slatkin will give us something we don't get already - we can expect a long overdue link-up with a whole universe of American music that never makes it across the Atlantic. And it will mean some wonderful discoveries for British audiences - especially the ones who feel that new (or newish) writing has lost touch with Mr Average.

Mr Average will have found few terrors in the BBC SO concert that Slatkin conducted last weekend, which effectively foretold the shape of things to come. It was given over to one work by one composer, John Corigliano, who ranks these days as the leading figure on the conservative wing of modern American music. His opera The Ghosts of Versailles was the first commission by the New York Met in 25 years. His Symphony No 1 touched many a nerve, and not just for the reason that it was written in memoriam of people who had died from AIDS. And his scores for films like Altered States - and more recently The Red Violin - have often turned out better than the film itself.

But films aside, too little Corigliano makes it through to Britain. And until last weekend when Slatkin gave it its UK premiere, we had never heard his major, 80-minute choral symphony A Dylan Thomas Trilogy - which is surprising, not only because it sets the words of a popular British poet, but because it has been growing gradually as a score over some 40 years. In fact, it has become an ongoing autobiographical statement for Corigliano, marking time through his life in exactly the way that the poems it selects marked time through the life of Dylan Thomas.

Fern Hill, the earliest part, from 1960, sets Thomas's memory of childhood. The next, from the mid-1970s, is Thomas's mid-life: Poem in October and Poem on his birthday. Then, 20 years on, comes one more (the last?) addition: a setting of the Author's Prologue which Corigliano splis into its two, palindromic parts and wraps around the original Fern Hill.

Whether the consequence of all this has integrity as a piece, I'm not sure. It feels like the enlargement of Trouble in Tahiti that Leonard Bernstein nearly but not quite brought off in A Quiet Place: a tiny treasure in an outsized casket. When the 80 minutes were up, I didn't feel I'd been through the momentous emotional journey that Thomas's words chart and Corigliano's score invites the listener to share. For all its eloquence and effort, it never quite got me beyond Fern Hill. And it never quite convinced me that there was much in this music that hadn't been written before. By other composers. Mostly Barber.

But that said, no one could fail to admire the craft, the technique and the beauty of Corigliano's writing. He is a real composer. He knows how to do things in the old, time-honoured, largely tonal ways. And he does them from the heart. The Dylan Thomas Trilogy must have been a pleasure for the BBC Symphony Chorus and soloists John Daszak, William Dazely, Patrick Burrowes to sing. It was probably a gift for the BBC SO to play. And it was certainly a fascinating piece to hear. We need to know about this music.

The British orchestra most closely involved with things American has, up to now, been the London Symphony. It was the LSO who engaged Previn, built a lasting bond with Leonard Bernstein, and then took on Michael Tilson Thomas as its chief conductor before Colin Davis. Unsurprisingly, the LSO became the most American-sounding of British orchestras, with an impressive, power-packed, upfront brass delivery. And the brass had a field day when Tilson Thomas came back on Sunday for one of his regular return trips to the Barbican.

The repertory was not American - and thinking back to the days when he was in charge of the LSO, it rarely was, beyond a split interest in experimentalists like Ives and Reich on the one hand, and Broadway swank on the other that left the middle ground largely bypassed.

No, the true heart of Tilson Thomas's music-making lay in Debussy and Mahler - whose Kindertotenlieder was, on Sunday, the pivotal piece in a programme built around the Austro-German transition from Romanticism to Modernism. The composers were Wagner, Mahler and Berg. And for impact the highlight was Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra, which date from the First World War and compound the debris of a war-torn culture as nostalgic dances from the old order filter through the brute noise of the new.

But the Kindertotenlieder was memorable too, for the fragrant mezzo of the soloist Angelika Kirschlager: a young voice on the brink of a major career. And the full orchestral strength of the "Dawn" and "Rhine Journey" sequences from Wagner's Gotterdammerung was where the brass section came into its own.

Wagner doesn't feature prominently in the LSO's life these days, for obvious reasons. The Barbican is not an opera house. But with the number of concert-operas in its future schedules, you could be forgiven for thinking it has ambitions to become one. Total Wagner with soloists and chorus would be a tight fit . But with some ingenuity, and with the LSO equipped to turn out Wagner fragments as magnificent as these, it could be a formidable prospect. Not least for the reviving Royal Opera.