CONTEMPORARY MUSIC / Let us eat, drink and be merry: Nick Kimberley on three festivals attempting to make new music listener-friendly

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Listening to music is supposed to be an enhancing, energising experience, but it doesn't always work out that way. It would be difficult to say which is the more debilitating: sitting in a packed concert hall as a huge orchestra sleepwalks its way through a piece that everyone - audience and musicians alike - knows by heart; or shivering in a nearly empty auditorium while a handful of musicians, eyes never daring to leave the score, struggle through a new work with which neither audience nor musicians can make any contact.

Orchestras - some of them - have their methods of combating routine repertoires. A more pressing, and depressing, problem is that of making new music work, of bringing together composer, audience and musician in a format which enlivens the music rather than rendering it inert. Over the next few weeks, London audiences have the luxury of three festivals which, in finding different ways of presenting new music, hope to recover something of the intimacy of chamber music.

Tonight, the Chamber Music Company (CMC) presents the first of three 'Summer Solstice' events at Conway Hall, during which consecutive Saturday evenings become miniature festivals, with three self-contained 'concerts' per evening, plus a buffet and bar until midnight. Beginning on 21 June, the Platform 3 concert series (motto: 'Play me some 20th-century music before it's over') occupies the ICA, where there is also food and a late bar. And in July there's the second fortnight of Almeida Opera, during which new operas jostle alongside modern chamber works; and yes, the Almeida offers a bar and buffet.

For some the idea that food and drink should be an integral part of concert-going will seem irrelevant, even inimical. Yet a concert experience just as destructive as the two living deaths already described is to leave a good performance with a rare feeling of communal well-being, only to find that the bar has shut and everyone must go their separate ways.

Joanna MacGregor, one of the guiding hands behind Platform 3, is convinced that there is another way: 'I can't envisage a festival like ours working unless you have a proper meeting space, a late bar and everything. I'm not interested in concerts where you come out and there's nowhere to go.'

For CMC's Mark Troop, the thinking has been slightly different: with each evening beginning at 6.30 and ending around midnight. 'We thought, 'People are going to have to eat' - we want to create a festival feeling.' And if food and wine become a distraction? 'That will be a test for us: if we play well enough, and the music's interesting enough, people will listen. It will be good to see how a classical audience, used to sitting still, reacts to a more informal situation. We might find that they just sit there, absolutely quietly; or they may unwind. Normally in a classical concert you have this very impressive silence to work with, you can tell when people are really listening. We have to create that atmosphere in a slightly different context.'

These are not marginal considerations, but crucial to anyone attempting to promote new music outside the established venues. Some may contend that if the music isn't sufficient in itself, then it's not possible to redeem it. Still, you have to get the audience in the first place. According to Jonathan Reekie, associate music director of Almeida Opera: 'What audiences want from an evening out has changed. Look at London's West End theatres, where bigger, more extravagant musicals seem to be the only thing that survives. If you put on chamber music in a badly lit hall, with no stage management, so that there are clatterings, awkward pauses and shufflings, with music falling on the floor, you're missing a vital part of what audiences look for.'

Some may perceive this as a betrayal of the Almeida International Festival of Music, which, in nine years (until 1989) under Pierre Audi's directorship, established itself as one of the world's major celebrations of new music. Reekie thinks otherwise: 'We wanted to build something out of what Pierre had created, but with our own imprint. The Almeida had changed from a receiving house to a producing theatre, and we wanted the music somehow to reflect that. One of the things we're trying to do is to address the relationship between music and text, and we're well placed to do that. So the concerts are an integral part of the festival; however, the emphasis has changed. Now they feed off the opera. The theatrical element has been brought to the music, and that's an important part of the problem contemporary music faces.'

And so, in collaboration with English National Opera, Almeida Opera presents two chamber opera premieres (by Kevin Volans and Julian Grant), a double bill of operas derived from the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes (one by featured composer David Lang), and a series of chamber concerts, some of which have a textual content. Perhaps not as all-embracing as Pierre Audi's festivals, but there is a unity; and, says Reekie, 'There is an audience for contemporary opera and music theatre - it's not always there, you've got to get it right.'

The Chamber Music Company has a different approach to its Conway Hall concerts. Here, eclecticism rules: the first concert opens with Brahms, and closes with a programme of music (Scarlatti to the Beach Boys) selected for the Composers' Ensemble by Elvis Costello. In between, there is Gorecki and Lutoslawski. Mark Troop insists: 'What we're trying to do is to persuade people who like one type of music that it is possible to enjoy others. So people who go for the modern stuff will get Brahms, maybe a bit of jazz: it can all live happily together. In some ways, chamber music is chamber music, and when you hear the gypsy band Bratsch - who close the festival - their ensemble is so tight, that it is chamber music, in a different style.'

The 'Summer Solstice' series also offers John Tavener, a new work by John Woolrich, Haydn piano trios and - a CMC speciality, this - a rediscovered masterpiece, a piano trio by Robert Volkmann, a work much loved in the 19th century (it was Liszt's favourite chamber work) but since abandoned. Part of the point is to show the flexibility of Chamber Music Company: 'One of the things about CMC,' says Troop, 'is that there's a clarinet trio within the group, a piano trio, plus soprano Patricia Rozario. It's terribly difficult to get that across in one concert, you can only really do it in a series.'

Platform 3, on the other hand, is, in Joanna MacGregor's words, 'a festival celebrating young talent as much as anything'. She adds: 'I'm keen on looking around to see who are the young bucks in new music. We give them a freedom with their staging that they don't get at a bigger venue. And this year I wanted to try double bills: I wanted audiences to cross over. No matter how hard you try, if you have a jazz musician one night, and someone playing new music the next, the same audience won't come. So I'm trying to force the issue by putting them on in the same evening.

'I have this absolute conviction that a lot of what happens in contemporary jazz is very similar to a lot of what happens in new music. I like to give the performers a free hand, but I did get some suggestions - like the Constant Lambert piano concerto - that I turned down: 'Sorry, that's not modern enough]' And then you say to some people 'New music', and they say, 'Philip Glass: he gets an audience'; and I had to say, 'Sorry, I don't want Philip Glass' - programming things just to get an audience isn't good enough.'

Far from craving audiences at any cost these are concert series that acknowledge that audiences are integral to performance, not a bothersome extra. If, in striving to find new ways to present new music, they dispel the penitential atmosphere stifling so many concerts, so much the better.

'Summer Solstice', 12, 19, 26 at the Conway Hall, W1 (071-497 9977); 'Platform 3', 21-26 June at the ICA, SW1 (071-930 3647); 'Almeida Opera' 1-18 July at Almeida Theatre, N1 (071-359 4404)

(Photograph omitted)