Music: Conga, and the audience congas with you

MICHAEL WHITE ON CLASSICAL MUSIC Conlon Nancarrow premiere Royal Albert Hall, London Wonderful Town Royal Albert Hall, London Belladonna Music with Altitude Festival, Aspen
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For centuries American culture took its cues from Europe. For most of this century it has been the reverse. And of all the things American music has taught us in the past years, perhaps the most important are the merits of the melting pot - the ability to accommodate diversity in unity - and the fact that innocence can open doors which sophistication tends to close.

Both lessons struck me forcefully in Tuesday's Prom, which was Americana wall-to-wall and decidedly accommodating: it began with "difficult" music of the pioneering New World avant-garde and ended with half the performers and a fair percentage of the audience dancing the conga round the Albert Hall.

The pioneer was Charles Ives, the founding father of American iconoclasm. His brutal sound-collage techniques - part radical experiment, part pure nostalgic schmaltz - preach those gospels of diversity and innocence as forcefully as any music I know. At the Albert Hall, with a string of small items played by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under Thomas Ades, it could actually have been a lot more forceful: the attack seemed muted in that great black space.

And attack was also a problem in the main musicological item on this programme: a Study for Orchestra by one of Ives's pioneering successors, Conlon Nancarrow. The piece was deemed unperformable in Nancarrow's lifetime and this was its European premiere. I can understand why it wasn't done before. The scoring is oddly congealed, with instrumental groups playing at different speeds but harnessed to the fixed time of a player-piano: this was Nancarrow's trademark, which he used to grape- shoot notes at speeds far faster than the human hand could contemplate.

On this occasion, it was a piano powered by computer disc, but the effect was the same: a roaring blur, somewhere between the Sixties sonic psychedelia of the old BBC Radiophonic Workshop and a power-drive whoopie cushion. Necessarily it gets a laugh. As does the "player" whose task - having activated the disc - is to sit motionless while ghostly fingers do the work. All very entertaining.

But the real entertainment on Tuesday came after the interval when Simon Rattle took over and turned this Prom into the most brilliantly upbeat night of the season so far. The cause? Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town, which was the last of three stage scores the composer wrote around more or less the same subject: young persons on the loose in Manhattan. In Fancy Free and On the Town they were sailors looking for girls. In Wonderful Town they're girls looking for sailors - which is where the conga comes in, because sailors, as we all know, like to dance.

This was the last of Bernstein's collaborations with the Broadway blue- chip librettists Comden and Green, and the chemistry held good. It lacks a premier-league love song, but the score is otherwise a treasure trove of stylishly eclectic gems and a paradigm of music that doesn't just accompany the gags. It is the gags: not always subtle, but adroit, like a well- timed slap in the face.

Funnily enough, the cast here was the same as on Rattle's new EMI disc of Wonderful Town, and in superb form, with Audra McDonald (lyrically enchanting) and Kim Criswell (gutsily direct) as the two girls, Thomas Hampson (smiling) as the male love interest, and Brent Barrett as virtually everyone else - for which he steals the show.

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group played their hearts out. The London Voices chorus had a ball. And Rattle was magnificent. He had the relaxed assurance of a man who, seemingly, can put his hand to anything and get it right. To watch him at work these days is to watch a master, unassailably in the ascendant. It's a heartening experience.

But back to innocence. Fifty years ago, in a remote mining town in the Rocky Mountains, someone had the bizarre idea of hosting a Goethe convention to which great men of the day would be invited in a spirit of post-war universalism and brotherly love. The great men included Albert Schweitzer and Artur Rubinstein. And the musical element in this idealistic love- feast developed into an annual festival which is now one of the big cultural fixtures in North America.

It runs for nine weeks, programmes 200 events, and calls itself "Music with Altitude" because Aspen - now a chic resort-town for the super-rich - is 8,000 feet above sea-level and set in some of America's most dramatic scenery. The guide-books call it "defining". And the Aspen Music School, which sits nearby in a secluded valley, is pretty defining too: serenely inspirational, with students from around the world who supply the orchestras, chamber groups and choirs which are the backbone of Aspen Festival performances.

To call them students is in fact an understatement: they are the double cream of young professionals who attract star musicians to tutor and direct them. So it was that the other weekend, in a vast tent that only just keeps out the storms which hit the Rockies at this time of year, I heard James Levine conduct perhaps not the tidiest but certainly the boldest Mahler Three I've heard in years. It featured the spectacular Michelle DeYoung singing the mezzo solo, as she will at the Proms next week.

But the main reason I went to Aspen was new opera, which has become the festival's somewhat anglophile speciality. Last year it imported Turnage's Greek, the year before, Ades's Powder Her Face. And for 1999 it premiered its own commission: Belladonna by Bernard Rands who, although Professor of Music at Harvard, comes from Sheffield. To appreciate why he moved to America, it helps to know that he was born in 1934, the same year as Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle, and close enough in time to so many other British music heavyweights that he presumably felt crowded out. In America, by contrast, he's a conspicuous presence. There, he pulls Pulitzers and big commissions through eclectic music that delivers serious-minded intellectualism in a wrap of semi-lyrical tonality.

Belladonna does exactly that. It's a sequence of fantasies that arise out of a dinner conversation between five women, one of whom turns out to be a man in drag (a countertenor). They're discussing love and how it hurts as well as heals. Like belladonna, the herb of the title, it depends on how you get it. And Rands frames the discussion/ fantasies with references to other famous dinner parties: Plato cooking for friends in ancient Greece and Jesus having a drink with the lads at the Last Supper.

At this point things become a touch pretentious - until Brittany the countertenor reveals all and the piece suddenly shifts gear into a farcical parody of opera-as-we-know it. Brittany, I should explain, is an opera singer and, like all the ladies at this dinner, cartoon-thin. With a drunken academic, a nun, an abortionist and a Chinese freedom-fighter, Belladonna reads like Michael Tippett. And that's about how well it works on stage.

But musically, the piece has something to offer; and David Zinman, who conducted, squeezed that semi-lyricism from the score like milk from an udder. Sometimes it flowed, sometimes it only trickled, but memorably enough to think the piece merits a second, less frantic, production. That will be the test.

MUSIC CHOICE

THREE CHOIRS FESTIVAL Worcs (01905 745660) opens Sat to 27 Aug

Venerable English institution, this year based in Worcester and opening - radically - with Duke Ellington in the Cathedral on Saturday night.

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