Ding, dang, Don!

Review: CLASSICAL: BCMG Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham

Even without the excuse of a Sounds of Sweden festival, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group is adept at importing refreshing new sounds, groups and soloists to the musically bristling Midlands capital. Latest guests at the Adrian Boult Hall were the Kroumata Percussion Ensemble, a six-man clutch of virtuosi who need no conductor (though their leader does occasionaly brandish the odd marimba stick) to weld together their dazzlingly precise, mutually attentive ensemble.

On Friday, Kroumata turned their subtle skills to the wood-metallic contrasts of John Cage's Third Construction, the not-so appealing lugubriousness of a hymnic new Xenakis piece (named Zuthos after a Greek word for Boreal beer, but no patch on Bass or Boddington's) and the wicked explosiveness of their bring-the-house-down finale, Kroumata Pieces, composed for them by their virtual composer-in-residence, Sven-David Sandstrom, who showed off their magnificent precision-drumming with a joyous, thunderous ear- battering to outzap Zulu, Apache and the entire battle of Waterloo. A pity all Handsworth wasn't there to be assailed.

The other real treat was Toru Takemitsu's Rain Tree, a delicate souffle of bells, xylophones and marimbas that sounded here just as the composer meant it to - like water filtering through a myriad oriental leaves. Sheer enchantment. Likewise the witty (if over-extended) accordion-led encore, a Maigret-like gem of sleazy Parisian pastiche, with which the togged- up Kroumata managed to cap their seemingly uncappable tympanic apotheosis.

The Swedish trombonist Christian Lindberg had seemed not fully at ease in the new Xenakis; but his virtuosic talents resurfaced on Sunday for a second BCMG concert alongside trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger. And what a showpiece concert it was, kept sensibly on the rails by conductor Elgar Howarth. In fact, the Birtwistle-framed evening might have gained from using Howarth even more: the opening (conductorless) early wind quintet Refrains and Choruses, while lacking nothing in solo skill, audibly cried out for the reassurance of a co-ordinating hand.

Watching Howarth - a brilliant trumpeter in his day - supporting Hakan Hardenberger in Birtwistle's quasi-concerto Endless Parade evoked mixed fascination and irony. There seemed a slight lack of forward thrust: event occluded all-important sequence. But Hardenberger's muted playing was an unadulterated joy; and he knows all too well how 20 years ago Howarth might have taken him on - and won. All-round teamwork of a high order.

But it was Christian Lindberg's evening, as he pitched in with the world premiere of Cantos de la Mancha, a five-movement, 16-minute sequence on the Don Quixote theme by Jan Sandstrom (no relation). Forget Richard Strauss: this is the one. True, aspiring trombonists must disrobe from pantaloon to hose, ooze mock (or genuine) Lorcan cante jondo, wheeze, flail and mutter as toothlessly as Roy Dotrice's John Aubrey. But the high jinks, the pathos, the generosity in approaching Cervantes' old man of La Mancha - both mentally and physically, one foot in the grave (and he knows it) - are what counts. The BCMG strings, in adagio and scherzo (shades of Shostakovich 14) alike, underlined the pathos. And Lindberg - who (here) never went OTT - added a spiritual maturity to his range. The piece is a winner.

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