Keep your hands to yourself

MUSIC; Nyman / Dankworth RFH, London
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The Independent Culture
In the beginning was the chord sequence, and the chord sequence was Mozart's, and the tune was Mozart's too. The opening concert in the "Nyman on the South Bank" series last Saturday began with In Re Don Giovanni, the composer's evergreen calling card; the first half was devoted largely to music from Peter Greenaway's films The Draughtsman's Contract (renovations of Purcell) and Drowning by Numbers (more Mozart). Defiantly, but often very imaginatively, Nyman has built an extremely successful career from such borrowings.

The approach has its limitations, notably an apparently congenital short- windedness. Here, however, it was easier to forget this and focus on the genuine musical richness on offer. I've rarely heard the Michael Nyman Band play so well and so clearly amplified. In "The Disposition of the Linen" from The Draughtsman's Contract, you could actually listen to the contrapuntal unfolding; there's more to Nyman than usually reaches the ears of those critics who hate him.

But weren't these concerts intended to promote Nyman's recent repentance at plundering the past and his concern to write longer works with a more symphonic sweep for forces besides his own Band? Original plans for the series omitted works composed with borrowed materials almost entirely. Admittedly, Noises, Sounds and Sweet Airs, an extended theatrical collaboration with Robert Lepage, was withdrawn by its director for revision. And several large-scale works will appear later in the month.

On Saturday, though, the Nyman who keeps his hands to himself was heard in just two compositions, both unfortunately suggesting that he does indeed steal from others because he can't come up with any decent tunes himself. The basic material of Part 4 from the dance work The Fall of Icarus hardly proved strong enough to fill its stop-go structure. The separate groups of strings, saxophones and brass in Three Quartets allowed contrasting types of material to establish clear identities in the absence of the composer's pounding piano. Again, though, the lack of consistently individual material, and the inability to sustain a structure obviously intended to be more cumulative, were a worry.

In the final work, The Upside-down Violin - based on melodies modelled on the Arab-Andalusian tradition - the 10-piece Orquestra Andalusi de Tetuan joined the Nyman Band. While enjoying the improvisations on his rather catchy tunes, I didn't think Nyman himself had done enough to earn the standing ovation. There was also a worrying whiff ofcultural imperialism about the occasion.

A crowd of fans (average age 30) packed the RFH for this event. On Friday, another large crowd (average age 60) had heard John Dankworth's new Clarinet Concertopremiered by the LPO under Martyn Brabbins, with Emma Johnson wearing her new waif-just-out-of-the-bath look. It proved dismally tawdry stuff, a long way from his best work and little to do with the real spirit of jazz; Johnson's lack of projection didn't help. The composer was seemingly absent.

n Nyman series continues 13, 21, 29 April, SBC, London SE1 (0171-928 8800)

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