Mavericks

Proms 1997: Ensemble Modern / Adams Royal Albert Hall, London / Radio 3
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The Independent Culture
Ensemble Modern's all-American concert last Sunday, conducted by John Adams, was a welcome, and welcoming, beginning to the new-music events of the 1997 Proms: a substantial and revealing programme of six pieces by three generations of American mavericks, hugely enjoyed by a large audience.

Consisting entirely of music new to the Proms, it included composers whom previous controllers would never have allowed to grace their seasons. Philip Glass may be the most popular concert and opera composer working today, and is 60 years old this year. But his Facades - ravishingly played by a sextet of saxophones and strings as a second-half interlude between the more upbeat and zany delights of Adams himself and Frank Zappa - was the first Glass work to be performed in the festival; Zappa, too, was a Proms newcomer. John Drummond, the Proms supremo before Nicholas Kenyon and scourge of the minimalists, was sitting a little below me. He didn't applaud the Glass; I couldn't see the look on his face.

Ensemble Modern, in some respects the German equivalent to the London Sinfonietta, is a crack group of instrumentalists; they embrace Adams as conductor, and Reich, Glass, the veteran experimentalist Lou Harrison (80 this year) and Adams as composer, with more evident enthusiasm than the Sinfonietta, and their playing of this repertoire has more natural panache. Zappa's The Yellow Shark was written for Ensemble Modern; several highly entertaining excerpts from this concluded the concert, generating two encores.

Fears that the Albert Hall's acoustics might defeat some of this repertoire, as it did when the group played George Antheil and Reich there two years ago, proved unfounded. In loud music, of which there was a good deal, sounds could dance on the ceiling as well as the floor, as overtones mingled and some very physical reverberations occasionally shook the building. Partly thanks to extensive amplification, the sound was, however, in general surprisingly clear. The soothing intricacies of Reich's Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, performed unconducted at the start of the programme, worked as well as Zappa's subversions did at the close.

Three pieces new to Britain - one brand new, all strong, enlivened the event still further. Love Bead, a BBC commission from Michael Gordon (at 41 on Sunday, the youngest composer represented), puts a lopsided samba rhythm through its irregular paces against a regular pulse for 10 minutes, with the aid of some devious dissonances and dense textures. Adams's own Scratchband (1996) confirms the impression Gnarly Buttons gave last autumn that he's back on form after his "rock" indiscretions; some wicked crossrhythms contribute to a real sense of purpose and note-to-note control. Harrison's Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra (1972/3) - in which the valiant soloist on the hall's mighty Willis instrument was Hermann Kretzschmar, joined by all manner of junk percussion as well as regular instruments - sounds like everything from a mutation of an Indonesian gamelan to Messiaen gone ape: a gloriously weird and extravagant piece, perfect for the Proms. More Harrison next year, please, and more adventurous, entertaining Proms like this one.

Keith Potter

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