In the youthful time of year: Today and every Thursday, a survey of the week's music This week: Strange flair, yoof culture and opera on the box

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The Independent Culture
DRAMATIC silence of the year so far belongs to Tuesday's Barbican audience, conducted by Andrew Mogrelia. When the National Youth Orchestra had completed the final fade of Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead, he kept his arms raised, at a standstill, and an already charged atmosphere doubled its voltage. That set up the evening. Mogrelia continued to deliver the goods with a minimum of gestures - a fine sight for all who are sick of podium ballerinas, and especially for the NYO's players. They blended a scrupulous, sumptuous sound, punctuated by rapid-fire chords. It was just right for the piece, if not for the quirky acoustic, which to my ears took better to the lean, intense, brightly differentiated lines that Mogrelia drew from Brahms's Second Symphony.

Wonderful oboe playing here, but the solo of the night came from a recent NYO principal cellist, Alasdair Strange, in the Cello Concerto No 2 by Penderecki. A shock, this: not because the once avant-garde composer had gone romantic and traditional, which you expect these days, but for the concerto's expressive power and sheer craftsmanship. Just as a previous smart generation mocked Shostakovich, some of us have had a go at Penderecki for his about-turn. But I suspect he will turn out one of contemporary music's survivors - especially if cellists carry on playing him with Strange's concentration and flair.

THIS time of year, the halls lose their nerve and go for an easy-to- get family audience with time on its hands. The regulars have the time too, but money talks. So we have to hunt around. The best finds often involve young people: concerts like the NYO's are full of a heightened excitement that comes from shared discovery and long preparation with a goal to aim for. I sometimes think the Park Lane Group's series of young artists and 20th-century music, a January perennial, gets its predictable glowing reviews out of sheer relief that there is something to go to. The format needs a face-lift, and the content is usually 'modern music' at its most conservative. Then you listen to the performers, in a state of amazed delight, and back come all the ecstatic adjectives.

THAT series returns next week. One good thing about the end of 1992 in London was a high-quality output from the early music industry. The European Community Baroque Orchestra, at St Giles Cripplegate on New Year's Eve, had the youth angle too - this is another training group, though the players are more advanced and more specialised. Drawing from the year's touring repertoire, it marked 'Beacon Europe Day' with a rather selective overview of European music, heavy on Germans, and played with finesse and fizz. At least, it did until Roy Goodman directed a couple of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos at a frantic, forced pace that should have been reported to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Trumpeters. Mark Bennett, the victim, was able to acquit himself splendidly in Trumpet Tunes by Purcell and in the theme that Marc- Antoine Charpentier didn't know he was writing for Eurovision.

So the European Arts Festival, which underwhelmed the nation for six months, at least went out on a high. Its last scheduled event, later the same day, was a performance by the full-size European Community Youth Orchestra of Ravel's La Valse. An intriguing choice: if you know the piece, you will remember it starts as a celebration of a stable Europe, symbolised by the Viennese waltz, and then (Ravel was writing in 1919) tears itself apart - the music's final gesture is to disappear into a vortex of its own making. Was somebody trying to tell us something?

FOR the rest, it was back to opera on the box: a lot of it about, nothing better than Maria Ewing as Strauss's Salome on Channel 4 (the BBC, in a notable pincer movement, at the same time put not only The Mikado on BBC2 but another Salome on Radio 3). And nothing more dismaying than the glamorous, 'traditional' La Cenerentola on BBC2 the next night, despite a fine cast - newcomers hooked by Salome will surely have given up at this with their prejudices intact. As for that soap: does anybody keep records of when viewers start to switch off? My guess is that The Vampyr will have held the uncommitted until the first aria, and not much longer. Slick design, businessmen up to no good, mysterious strangers - it was all looking fine, and then the music went and spoiled it.

The singing wasn't nearly good enough; and it's a pretty dire score in the first place, ripping off Weber and weakly pre-echoing Mendelssohn. Action grinds to a halt in most big opera numbers, but Marschner's just didn't hold attention for their own sake. That was a pity, since the later episodes had some good ideas going, like the split-location ensembles as rescuers dashed across the city. But the sub-Peter Sellars updating looked like a desperate effort to liven up stuff that's too dull to play straight. Sellars himself makes sure he works with good material, like Mozart. My vote for all-time best soap still goes to the Patrice Chereau production, one act at a time, of Wagner's Ring - great story, great pictures, great music, no frills.

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