MUSIC / Fresh starts: Robert Maycock reviews the LSO, the Philharmonia and the BBC SO

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The Independent Culture
FRANZ Welser-Most reckons he needs five years to make his orchestra 'world- class'. Most listeners, navely, think we have a memory well stocked with world-class performances from all five of London's symphony orchestras: on their day, their special genius is to bring off miracles at a moment's notice. If the fuss over the London Philharmonic is to mean anything, it has to end up making every day 'their day'.

The other orchestras, meanwhile, have their own plans for giving life a lift. So far the BBC Symphony has made most noise, and appeared to take most risks, by giving audiences one-price access to the best seats and confidently promoting Steve Martland as the central figure in Sunday's Festival Hall concert - no apologetic slipping-in of the contemporary composer here. What immediately worked was having the front of the hall packed and enthusiastic: that must boost the orchestra's spirits as much as a whole year of earnest planning for perfection. The pre-concert events, including a raunchy school band and a clangorous two-piano performance of Martland's Drill, had already heightened the atmosphere.

Babi Yar, Martland's massive Eighties monument, subject of a cult record but otherwise little played, duly battered its unforgettable way through the hall. Taking its Dutch models to extremes and infusing them with an urgent personal voice, it endures by sheer force of character. The orchestra reacted with a coarse performance of Britten's Four Sea Interludes, then a searing one of Vaughan Williams's Symphony No 4 - all the pieces held tautly together by Andrew Davis.

So far, so good; but if the BBC's gesture is to be more than token, it will have to deliver more where this came from, taking advice (Martland's?) on new music that breaks out of radio orchestra respectability. And it needs to develop contact and trust between composer and players.

Not much trouble on that count at the Philharmonia, which the night before launched its visiting composer James MacMillan's early-evening 'Music of Today' series as a free bonus for people on their way to Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius. MacMillan's recent reputation won him a good turn- out, not the standard new-music audience, which warmed as much as the performers both to his no- frills sincerity as a presenter and to the cogency and high emotion of his music-theatre piece Busqueda, which he conducted.

The low-key approach was refreshing, but the Philharmonia can afford to be less shy about promoting this series: while some of the BBC's audience was clearly unsure about Martland, MacMillan can move as well as provoke, and the concerts must not be left to fall back into ghetto status. Busqueda itself, written four years ago for a small group with speakers and singers, reveals his own voice emerging ever more clearly from the vestiges of avant-garde ways. It has the asset of direct, poetic texts about barely believable oppression, alongside words from the Mass to which they give a blazing immediacy.

Ironically, led by the actress Diana Quick, it overwhelmed the later Gerontius, where Yevgeny Svetlanov shaped the score broadly and without intimacy, and the Philharmonia Chorus lacked finesse when subdivided. Fine solo singing by Jard van Nes, David Wilson-Johnson and especially Dennis O'Neill struggled against, on this occasion, a correct but world-weary orchestra.

At the Barbican the London Symphony Orchestra began the season on Thursday with an air of having worked it all out already. The public trusts Michael Tilson Thomas and his colourful programmes - here a typical selection of the most macho pieces from Prokofiev's West Side Story . . . sorry, Romeo and Juliet, delivered with precision and no punches pulled, and a warm- blooded reading of the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations in which Steven Isserlis, unannounced, went for the composer's original version, substantially different from the usual one.

This may be a limited scenario, but it can develop: people now happily turn out, not just for Shostakovich or late Stravinsky, but for Colin Matthews, whom the orchestra has made a point of getting to know over some years. His Hidden Variables, which started the concert, is a big, brash and colourful orchestration of a chamber piece which gleefully has its cake and eats it by sending up the likes of Reich and Nyman along the way while at the same time relishing what it parodies. It does not hit the mark as neatly as the original - Matthews orchestrates better than Glass but not as well as Adams - but still makes an invigorating opener.

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