MUSIC / A question of balance: Stephen Johnson on Richard Rodney Bennett's crossover

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The Independent Culture
AT ONE point in his Radio 3 Prom interval chat with Mark Steyn, Richard Rodney Bennett referred to the new Concerto for Stan Getz as his first 'crossover' piece. Of course we were meant to raise our eyebrows. When a composer has stuck his fingers into as many kinds of musical pie as Bennett has, the inevitable question is: if he hasn't crossed over, who has? But there was a kind of truth in this: Bennett has certainly never made a point of mixing his idioms. Horoscope, for instance, is essentially a jazz piece - no matter that it was meant for the concert hall. And the new Variations on a Nursery Theme, premiered in the first half of the Saturday Prom, was very much a BBC Concert Orchestra piece; Bennett was quite clear that it was 'light music'.

So does the concerto represent a new departure? In the fast outer movements it wasn't just the slickness and technical assurance that were familiar. The angular string phrases, dodging both the beat and any firm sense of key, were recognisably the 'classical' Bennett, as was the fluid saxophone writing - except, that is, when agile bel canto gave way to ruder, spikier noises, evocative of jazz, but definitely not the real thing.

It was in the central slow movement that elements of blues, moody film score and post- Schoenbergian nocturne both declared themselves and cross- fertilised. Atmospheric as it was, though, it was difficult not to feel even here that if fertility is what crossover is all about, Concerto for Stan Getz yields rather less than Milhaud's 'jazz-ballet' Le boeuf sur le toit which preceded it. Saxophonist John Harle played it with all his usual stylishness.

In one important respect, Bennett's concerto scored over the new work in Friday's BBC Symphony Orchestra Prom: John Casken's song-cycle Still mine. Everything in Bennett's solo writing was clear - no question of important details being swamped by the strings and timpani. But while Casken's much larger forces rarely covered the voice of Thomas Allen, there often seemed to be a conflict of interest, at least in the first two songs. The problem was that Casken's orchestra initially seemed more arresting and alluring than the voice part, despite conductor Matthias Bamert's obvious concern for balance.

There was a turning point though at the end of the third song where the orchestra's powerful whale imagery (well-matched to the subject of Rodney Pybus's poem) calmed, and the final cry - 'Stay free, great conspirator]' - emerged in a lovely melodic curve. The final song, a setting of Gael Turnbull's 'An Irish Monk, on Lindisfarne, about 650 AD', was the high point of the cycle: quietly expressive lines that floated above and around the orchestral details hauntingly - everything distinct. Not all of this restrained vocal writing was easy to catch at the back of the Albert Hall stalls, even with a voice like Allen's behind it. But Still mine stuck in the memory, despite strong competition from a stirring and powerfully shaped Sibelius Fifth Symphony at the end of the programme.