Classical music: The biggest hitter in percussion today

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The Independent Culture
Evelyn Glennie, Leonard Slatkin

The Proms

Lake District Summer Music


'Gianni Schicchi'

Walton Trust, Ischia

Contemporary British Music

The Proms

Concerts, like dinner parties, are a game of mix and match, and quality control isn't the only issue. Sit six Mensa laureates around a gourmet table and they'll bore themselves into the ground, unless they happen to engage each other and appreciate your food. But Tuesday's Prom showed how it's done, with a package that included , the Philharmonia, and a programme of Anglo-American music based round Joseph Schwantner's Percussion Concerto - which bounds along with a freewheeling, American-eclectic virtuosity that demonstrates how the lives of percussionists have changed in the late 20th century, thanks largely to Glennie herself.

Time was, you sat beside your drum and struck it as required. Now, you negotiate a logistical nightmare of manoeuvres, leaping between crotales, water-gongs and alpine cow bells which - in this concerto - come apportioned between one set of hittable exotica at the front of the platform and another at the rear. The soloist weaves back and forth among the violins, playing the maraccas for good measure as she goes. And Glennie does it all with great panache: she's living proof of the unfathomable mystery of musicianship. I understand the basics of how she does it - feeling through her body the information that would otherwise come through her ears - but I don't understand how she distinguishes between the battery of signals that surround her in an orchestra, or the precision, subtlety and integration that results.

A clean, fresh Elgar 2nd Symphony filled the rest of the programme, its Edwardian whiskers clipped and not too lost in the English Romantic dream. But there was one other item at the start of the concert, written by Slatkin himself: an overture called Housewarming, which referred not to the temperature of the Albert Hall, but to the recently refurbished Kennedy Centre, Washington, where Slatkin is Music Director. Premiered at the hall's reopening, it demonstrates the sound-potential of a large space, with players scattered about the auditorium and other-worldly fanfares wafting down from distant galleries. But it also demonstrates endearing anglophilia, much of it a love-letter to Tippett, Britten and Walton. And there's the apparently symbolic inclusion of two children's choirs, who process into the hall and then out again, singing the theme of a Waltonian passacaglia previously heard in the orchestra. The message? That the future of music lies with the young, and that there will be no future unless we do more to educate them.

The concerns of Housewarming will echo in many a summer school running at the moment. Summer schools traditionally are icing on the education cake: a place for young musicians to develop skills they've already learnt. But increasingly, the skills aren't there, leaving the summer schools to fill the gap. And one example is Lake District Summer Music, based in and around Ambleside, which has just launched an appeal to fund an increase in its teaching function.

LDSM is a hybrid festival and school. Distinguished performers turn up to give concerts and, at the same time, provide coaching to young instrumentalists - mostly string players and mostly of conservatoire age. The artistic director is Roger Bigley, formerly of the Lindsay Quartet. And quartet- playing is fundamental to the programme which, this year, featured residencies by the Panocha and Parigi Quartets.

While I was there it was the Panocha, who are Czech, and represent the old traditions of East European playing preserved in Soviet bloc aspic. There's no high-gloss brilliance; the attack is achieved by push rather than bite. The sound is veiled in soft brown-sugar texture. And tempi are broad, though with a rhythmic freedom in their readings of Janacek and Smetana that only players steeped in this repertoire would dare attempt. The Panocha keep, in fact, a very clean ensemble. And the underlying discipline in their approach to music was clear from a masterclass I saw them give to student string quartets: mild-mannered in the presentation, but acute and detailed in the comments. The LDSM appeal will provide bursaries for more students to be coached by the likes of the Panocha. Without those cheques, the claim that music is a middle-class pursuit becomes a self- fulling prophecy.

But meanwhile, here's a heartening story from another summer school - this time for singers - run by the Walton Trust on Ischia in the Bay of Naples. Ischia is where William Walton went to live and bathe his later works in Mediterranean warmth; and it remains the home of his widow Susana, who runs what is probably the most privileged and covetable venture of its kind. The location is idyllic, the teachers eminent, and the students pay nothing. Everything, including travel costs, is covered by the Trust. Half the students are British, half Italian; and they work on a specific opera which is then performed in public. This year it was Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, conducted by James Lockhart and directed by Graziella Sciutti. And the heartening story is that the star of the show was a superb young British tenor who left school at 16, went to work in a car factory, and would still be there but for the discovery that he had could sing. His name is Alfred Boe. He's just about to start at the London Opera Studio. And though his Ischia performance as Rinuccio showed he has some catching up to do in terms of stage sophistication, it was ardent, strong and deeply touching. Above all, it was an outstanding voice: a young Dennis O'Neill with the capacity to fill a decent space and more besides.

Schicchi has pros and cons for students, with plenty of small, busy roles, but none of them providing a chance to shine. So the result can be a lot of people working hard on character and effectively doing their own individual shows. But Schicchi is not a comedy of character. The roles are Ortonesque commedia dell'arte: black farce, stock reaction, and in need of tight direction. Graziella Sciutti could have cracked her whip a little harder. But the wealth of experience she brought to the exercise - as a star Salzburg soprano of the 1960s and, more recently, responsible for acclaimed stagings in San Francisco and New York - was something in itself. The show was strong, well-paced, enjoyable. And for the students, hopefully, an unforgettable experience.

Something the BBC would no doubt prefer to forget is the disruption in Monday's late-night Prom. Simon Rattle was opening a programme of contemporary British music with Oliver Knussen's popular (though in the circumstances, one hesitates to use that word) Coursing, when someone in the audience decided to append an obligato rape alarm. It was an anti-modern-music protest, and the protester was duly punished by being forced to hear the whole piece played again. That'll teach him. But it does look as though our old friends the Hecklers might have resurrected from whichever land of the living dead they've stalked in recent years. I'm sharpening my stake in readiness.