MUSIC / Divided by a common language: It has been an unusually busy period for new music. Here, Nick Kimberley reviews Michael Nyman and Stephen Montague

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The Independent Culture
Is that distant rumble the sound of Adolphe Sax turning in his grave? Sax, who died 100 years ago last week, intended his saxophone as part of the symphony orchestra, but during his lifetime, notwithstanding the work of one or two imaginative colourists, it was seen as a sport, a hybrid with aberrant characteristics.

Now, after jazz and rhythm and blues have blazed a trail, composers are more willing to use the instrument. As a result, a player like John Harle, allying fluid technique with the utmost discipline, is slowly building up a repertoire of sax concertos. On Tuesday evening, at St John's Smith Square, Harle gave the London premiere of one of the more recent examples, Michael Nyman's Where the Bee Dances.

Harle has played in Nyman's band for years; here he performed, on soprano sax, with the Orchestra of St John's Smith Square, conducted by John Lubbock. His experience in Nyman's music showed in his loose-limbed phrasing, a crucial contrast with the tight, stepping rhythms of the low strings. Nyman prefers the instrument's higher register, where Harle's sound is deliberately thin, slightly reedy. Only rarely does the music slide downwards, where Harle's tone is lovely.

Nyman's own band would play this music with amplification. Here, played acoustically, it lost some impact, and perhaps Lubbock failed to extract the last degree of precision from the strings. Yet Harle established a powerful momentum and the performance gained confidence. Later on, we got a few minutes of Nyman at his most expansive, a brief extract from his score for Jane Campion's Oscar-nominated movie, The Piano. Like the tiny details on which Campion builds her film, this fleeting musical incident suggested myriad possibilities.

The well-planned programme began with Weill's Little Threepenny Opera Music. The slightly boxy acoustic suited the wind band's timbres, and Weill's brilliant orchestration allows tiny ripples of piano, guitar or banjo to puncture the winds' surface. The use of three percussionists in such a small ensemble is wonderfully subtle, but, although Weill need not always be played cabaret-style, here the sleaze factor was too low, the tea-dance tastefulness carrying echoes of the Temperance Seven. Only in the Kanonen-Song and the Finale did the music leap off the platform.

The concert closed with the jazz-band version of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The players had loosened up sufficiently to give an unusually fluid account of a work that can seem arch in its jazz inflections, and the piano soloist, Elizabeth Hayes, was less prissy than many more celebrated players.

But the evening's most exhilarating piece was Stephen Montague's At the White Edge of Phrygia. A small battery of percussionists loomed over everything, and there were moments of neat role-reversal as the string players beat their strings while a percussionist bowed his cymbal. The winds strained towards a screech, taut string figures held them back and, as tension built, release was deferred again and again. At last the percussion broke loose, allowing a kind of tranquillity, beneath which a certain restlessness still threatened. Lubbock controlled the orchestra perfectly, exactly balancing between precision and abandon. The effect was thrilling, a neat pivot on which the rest of the programme turned.

(Photograph omitted)