MUSIC / Explosions into light: Spirit of America - and England and Russia

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The Independent Culture
Bright light evoked in music is characteristic of Eighties composers - metal percussion, screeching woodwinds and whooshing stratospheric scales.

The London Sinfonietta's American Perspectives concert at the Barbican on Monday featured four pieces, three of which started with instrumental explosions as high, bright and action-packed as possible. The fourth was George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children, sensational in the early Seventies and in hindsight appearing as a statement of intent for much American music that was to follow.

The world may be a cultural melting pot but the contents can still congeal in new, nationally specific ways. With Ancient Voices of Children, America turned its back on Europe's metaphysical despair. Crumb, like Europeans before him, set out to rediscover lost rhythms, instincts and pleasures in the exotic - not just Spain or Turkey this time, but the full ethnomusicological spectrum: Japan, Mexico, India, Morocco.

Yodelling wordless vowels into the piano strings like a Red Indian in a movie, the soprano Christine Whittlesey was confident and dispassionate, true to the spirit of the piece as a ritual of rebirth. Boy singer Sam Pay, as the archetypal Child, swapped Lorca couplets with her in slightly crazy Sprechgesang. Mandolin and harp played ethereal Mogul scales, while hieratic drums and gongs thundered.

The message - that if your brain leads you into the wilderness you can switch it off and consult your senses - certainly seems to have got through to Tod Machover. His 1991 piece Song of Penance was also a ritual of cleansing, all in hyperactive dayglo synthesiser colours and starring a special computer-linked viola (Paul Silverthorne played from memory, with power and charisma). A rainbow profusion of scale figures rushed about through a computer-soprano text of Mapplethorpian physicality ('. . . a back, a shank wincing from squalor and rancour . . . '), while ecstatic major chords kept hitting those pleasure centres.

John Adams conducted the bravura evening. His own Chamber Symphony was in three jazzy, almost big-band movements with raffish, Brechtian patter-rhythms and violin solos that recalled The Soldier's Tale. Good-humoured mechanistic counterpoint provided endless diverting incident, although the vocabulary wasn't daring enough to sustain interest in the walking-bass slow movement. The audience preferred this more non-committal kind of fun to the Machover.

Peter Lieberson's Raising the Gaze, a deft amalgam of kabuki and noh and bongos and scrubbing Hungarian rhythms, was, again, a piece one just had to enjoy in the most immediate way.

It is something of a relief to turn from the feel-good factor to a 1982 piece by George Benjamin played by Docklands Sinfonietta at St John's, Smith Square, on Friday. Not that At First Light didn't make you feel good; it did. The piece shared the optic-nerve bias of the three new American pieces and even began, like them, with a dazzling flash of sound. But it was rhythmically more fastidious, less inclined to go jogging down old paths: an elegant, freshly 'heard' piece with the sparse cells and filaments and the biting colours of a Miro painting. At First Light didn't stun you; it invited you to listen, and sharpened your faculties.

The conductor, Martyn Brabbins, had prepared the piece beautifully. He also delivered a very good Eroica: riskily fast, some of it, and with a few less than perfectly confident moments, but full of insights about the rhythmic impulses and falls which are the fascinating inner life of Beethoven's music. Christine Shillito made a stylish, perceptive soloist in Kabalevsky's Cello Concerto: altogether this was Scarpia's favourite concert of the week.

If there is such a thing as a national English character in music-making, Brabbins reflects it: a blend of analytic sensitivity, professionalism, and iconoclasm. The pianist Graham Johnson has it too. Mahler's Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen, with the Yugoslav diva Marjana Lipovsek at the Wigmore Hall (BBC lunchtime, Monday) was heartbreakingly beautiful: a nobly spontaneous, chesty, Russian-style voice innocently set against the piano's faint gold fanfares rising from darkness and silence.

Johnson, with his readiness to break through the silk of the vocal line to make an expressive point, could not be more different from the equally compelling Russian, Oleg Maisenberg, who accompanied Gidon Kremer at the Barbican on Saturday night. Here was playing so finely wrought that it almost melted off the keyboard, but always stayed well to the back of the violin sonority. Their Webern and Schoenberg were haiku, full of transcendental hints. Kremer is such a star, so concentrated, that whatever he plays is riveting. His Liszt was mesmeric, and his Schubert idiosyncratic - etiolated, melancholic, full of dissolving cries and whispers. Who knows what will happen to this very romantic Russian style, fantastically disciplined, with such fine gradations of dynamics, now that Russia has burst open?