Classical: The roll-call of a century

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SUNDAY'S LSO programme conducted by John Adams, which completed the first half of the Barbican's American Pioneers series, concluded with the British premiere of Adams' new piano concerto, written last year for Emmanuel Ax, the soloist here. Entitled Century Rolls, this three-movement, half-hour work celebrates the piano roll and "the whole past century of piano music both popular and classical".

Adams never writes less than engagingly for orchestra, and the score has marvellous moments. The opening movement's solo sequence of moto perpetuo explorations of a handful of typical figurations is framed by inventive writing for reduced forces; the slow second movement evokes the "magic wood" of Tippett's piano concerto. "Hail Bop" - the finale (a "misapprehension" of the name of the comet) - takes Conlon Nancarrow's compositions for the piano roll as the starting point for some individual elaborations. Overall, though, neither this concerto's material nor what its composer does with it are representative of Adams at his best. Ax played with passion and precision.

Before the interval, five choruses and "three critical scenes" from The Death of Klinghoffer - the 1991 opera, based on the Achille Lauro incident, on which Adams collaborated with Peter Sellars - made a rather muted impression. The work's emphasis on hieratic, chorus-dominated, oratorio-like contemplation makes it more suited to concert presentation than Nixon in China, Sellars' and Adams' first joint venture. But this music has an elusive quality, far from the immediacy of Nixon and rhythmically complicated. The performance of the London Symphony Chorus, and a reduced LSO liberally supplemented with synthesisers, lacked the necessary security and energy, though it improved as it went along. In the solo numbers, Sanford Sylvan (a Sellars old hand) and Jeremy White pointed the way; but one almost wished one of the top-notch professional conductors in the audience had seized the baton.

Adams and Sellars, meanwhile, have moved towards a different kind of music theatre: small-scale, frankly song-based and with its vernacular roots clearly showing. Their 1995 collaboration, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, with June Jordan replacing Alice Goodman as their librettist, received its London premiere in a Southwark Playhouse production at The Warehouse on the two nights before the LSO concert. A curiously well-kept secret, it managed to sell out the small, appropriately squalid south London venue.

Though this piece's stereotyped characterisation, politically correct, Los Angeles- based plot and Adams' music itself all seemed rather two- dimensional, a lively and intelligent production - directed by Caroline Sharman, with designs by Jeanette Pritchard which made a real virtue of space and budgetary limitations - gave it a genuinely three-dimensional feel. Strong performances from a committed cast, and John Jansson's direction of a crack instrumental group, helped to make the continuing, and scandalous, absence from British opera houses of the composer's earlier, greater theatre works a little easier to bear.