Classical: Towards the Millennium Symphony Hall / ICC Hall 3, Birmingha m

As decades go, the 1950s have always had a bad press. A pervasive drabness has become associated with those 10 years before the Sixties showed everyone how to make it all hang out. Political control, monolithic public projects designed to transform a world shattered by war, along with many a pungent monochrome film, have all contributed to a feeling that, if this decade were to have a colour, it would be unremittingly grey. Music tells a different story. The cold war, mass production and the "mod con" might well have determined the socio-political agenda, but the aftermath of war unleashed a whole new age of colour for composers.

Saturday's opening concert in this year's Towards the Millennium festival was as determined a celebration of these riotous colours as you are likely to find: Stravinsky's endlessly fascinating Agon - an exercise in backdoor serialism which, for the attentive listener, remains the most wholeheartedly engaging of his scores; Messiaen's explosive, truculent and unashamed orgy of sonority, Chronochromie; and Stockhausen's Gruppen, composed for three orchestras and designed for the "concert hall of the future", in which the performers surround the listeners in a poignantly contemporary reversal of traditional hierarchies.

As far as Birmingham is concerned, Stockhausen has, to coin a phrase, never had it so good. Sternklang in the park four years ago and a rare performance of Momente two years later have sensitised audiences to the composer's requirements. All credit to CBSO that it did so much to create as authentic an environment for Gruppen as possible, not only presenting the piece in a hall where much of the public was surrounded by the musicians, but also twice on the trot. This certainly paid dividends. Whatever the work's quality, the move across to the International Convention Centre and the sight of three spectacularly-lit orchestras took the listener beyond the realm of conventional expectation.

There are many things to enjoy in Gruppen, particularly in the dedicated performances it received from Simon Rattle, John Carewe and Daniel Harding, but the main focus seemed to be on the occasion rather than the piece itself. As a testament to a vision of the future as seen from the 1950s, it was a real success; divorced from its context, however, it is hard to see Gruppen becoming part of our lives.

Stravinsky's Agon, however, should be on everyone's repertoire list. Its energy and impertinence keep it buzzing in the ear long after the players have put down their instruments. Messiaen's Chronochromie, while more insistent in its demands, provided a perfect bridge to Stockhausen. But, without the sheer enthusiasm and understanding of conductor and orchestra, the event could have been as grey as the conventional image of the decade itself.

In all three pieces, Rattle and the CBSO reminded one that they know how modern repertoire "goes". While never lazily routine, they draw the audience in with the skill of a seasoned guide, secure in their knowledge of the terrain and an infectious belief in its value.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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