MUSIC / Flying the American flag: Robert Maycock on the Motorola Festival of American Music

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Like America itself, the idea of American music is hard to pin down. Just when you think you have the essence in a poetic moment of Charles Ives, along comes the moan of the blues or a throaty Latin roar to remind you something is missing. The current Motorola Festival of American Music isn't the whole story: it isn't so much the melting pot as a lucky dip.

Still, take the programmes one by one and the luck is coming up. Wednesday's first South Bank concert of three by the Philharmonia, all conducted by the festival's artistic director Leonard Slatkin, built up cleverly to Leonard Bernstein's Songfest by way of three big influences or forerunners: William Schuman, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber. From the podium, Slatkin proposed that, with their deaths, the period of American classical composition effectively came to an end. Another subtext could be the facets of gay sensibility, emerging ever more strongly towards the great Walt Whitman setting, 'To What You Said', that forms the centrepiece of Songfest, its composer's most generous lyrical outpouring this side of West Side Story.

Songfest, a work with six solo singers, a virtual anthology of American poetry and a joyous celebration of racial diversity, brings together the emotional directness and the classical craftsmanship that often fight each other in Bernstein's concert music. Anybody else might sound outrageously touristy in bringing so many musical styles together, but force of personality makes a whole out of it. Every bar is stamped with the Bernstein sound.

A high-powered cast including Cynthia Clarey, Jean Rigby and Salvatore Champagne accepted its gifts. Faye Robinson's no-holds- barred, searing brilliance brought an early peak, Thomas Hampson the other great moment - for, despite what you read in his interview on this page, he did get to perform the Whitman song. Willard White was indisposed, and Hampson took wing; Brian Bannatyne-Scott deputised adeptly in the ensembles. The presence of the composer as conductor used to give Songfest several extra dimensions but the most heartening thing about this evening was to know that the music lives on in proud independence.

The second most heartening thing was that the tender flower of Barber's music, poorly nurtured in its day, can still surprise. The Cello Concerto, given a wholehearted and buoyant reading by Ralph Kirshbaum, doesn't offer quite the thrill of discovery that Barber's Violin Concerto provides, either in its melody or in its orchestral colour. What it does have is taut energy and clarity, a languidly sensuous slow movement, and a finale that brings off a gritty grandeur not a million miles from the complex close of the Elgar Violin Concerto.

Earlier in the evening, the cowboy camp of Copland's Rodeo was mostly transcended in firm singing lines and biting characterisation which strode out from beneath the wet blanket of Schuman's American Festival Overture. Good, bright and brassy for 30 seconds, this opener absurdly overworked its ideas. A fugue in a Festival Overture, for heaven's sake? Even Brahms, who actually used the word 'academic' in the title of his own festival overture, knew better than that.