MUSIC / Concentrated listening: Robert Maycock on a David Bedford premiere in Spitalfields

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The Independent Culture
EVEN WHEN it was new and struggling, the Spitalfields Festival had a solid, settled look about it. But like the place itself, it's full of surprises just below the surface. Currently the local buzz is about Spitalfields Market Opera, a project to build quickly and cheaply a 540-seat theatre inside the old market. This could become the small-scale house that London lacks, so long as the scheme wins the trust of the performers and composers who actually need it - the capital already has a glut of opera festivals that don't pay enough attention to each other.

Meanwhile the festival itself continues to pack everything into Nicholas Hawksmoor's theatrical church building. This year, alongside the Purcell and the Walton and the evenings called 'Music of Hawksmoor's London', you could suddenly run into Touristen Dachau. This unfrivolous title, lurking at the centre of a Monday-night concert by Jane's Minstrels, belongs to a festival commission from David Bedford, a music-theatre piece with one central role for soprano and a choral group designed to bring school students into the centre of the festival. It is rather more than a bit of packaged history. Michael White's text is about the way the site at Dachau has been sanitised for presentation to visitors - a comment on contemporary life that could hold just as well for our attitudes to historic church and market buildings, come to that.

Not that Touristen Dachau leaves you much time to stop and think about it. This compact and hard-hitting score, the most powerful I have heard from Bedford, focuses intensively on the Bavarian concentration camp. A tourist tries to make sense of her reactions by imagining herself as various stereotypes associated with the place. They are quite sharply characterised: there's a good tale of a careless Jew captured; some pointed only-obeying-orders bustle for a worker; and, while the gay episode is post-Bent cliche, it draws an eloquent aria from Bedford. None of this laboured the obvious; even a heavier line about present-day parallels wouldn't have harmed it. Still, the best of it is in the tourist herself, struggling with dismay and finding the heart of the matter in the guise of a nun from the convent subsequently built on the site, set to hopelessly distant echoes of Schutz like a memory of innocence willingly surrendered.

The ending drew a long silence and warm applause, but Touristen Dachau isn't a dramatic piece, except in the mind. It meditates on action, rather than acting. Jane's Minstrels did not do much to theatricalise it: a spotlight flashed fitfully, and Jane Manning got just enough into character in front of the instrumentalists. It didn't matter, since singer and players had the measure of a score that made its own points. What didn't come off was the placing of the off-stage chorus, whose lusty shouts were almost inaudible.

It was a pity, too, that nobody dared to place the piece last. You could sense what the programme was trying to do - down to the depths, then out again - but it was long on interesting curiosities and short on real grip. Anyway, after staring into the abyss, the last thing you need is a bout of cheerful Percy Grainger. In a proper context, the Colonial Song can bring lumps to manly throats, but here it came over like the sort of tune that watchful people sing round a camp-fire. Policemen in Soweto, perhaps, or troops in Bosnia: we should forget again so fast?

Festival ends tonight with Britten's 'The Rape of Lucretia': 7.30 Christ Church E1 (Booking: 071-377 1362)