MUSIC / In living memory: Anthony Payne on a post-modern return to the past

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The Independent Culture
The City of London Sinfonia programme under Richard Hickox at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on Saturday was as notable for the talking-points it raised as for the musical satisfaction it provided. The main part of the programme placed a spotlight on post-modernist styles from Part and Tavener to Schnittke, but before that we were entertained by pupils of the Hall Mead and Harold Hill Community Schools, who, together with members of the orchestra, gave a presentation that formed the climax of a four-day education project directed by the composer Malcolm Singer and the writer Michelene Wandor.

The result was a 20-minute piece of music theatre created improvisatorily out of workshop sessions and geared to the idea of memory - an expressive theme that, in one form or another, dominated all the works in the main orchestral programme. Short musical numbers were linked by neatly choreographed activities involving some 60 performers who enacted what Singer and Wandor called 'a kaleidoscope of reflections real and imagined'. Braced by firmly shaped musical ideas, the event made a compelling impression.

But memory played an altogether more complex role in the music that followed. Here was memory viewed as the burden of music history. Nowhere else in the development of western music has there been the obsession with the past that typifies so much 20th-century work. A few brilliant achievements have been engendered by it, from middle-period Stravinsky to Berio's Sinfonia, but we might soon come to question an era that has become so fascinated with past styles that it is producing music about music, relying on allusion and quotation, instead of creating music about its own primary thoughts and feelings.

Such is the tendency in the Schnittke pieces played here, Concerto Grosso No 1 and Mozart a la Haydn, stylistic rag-bags that present ghosts of past styles and actual quotes. There is, no doubt, a certain honesty in this music, reflecting as it does an age that has lost its way. But what we need is a music that makes our age, and doesn't merely reflect it. To that extent, Part's Cantus and Tabula Rasa contribute more positively, but their resurrection of tonality in the most simplistic terms, while achieving a certain austere saintliness, seems to be avoiding eye contact with our times. Tavener, too, can be said to have achieved a touching simplicity by like means, as was reconfirmed by the cellist Steven Isserlis's fine performance of the unaccompanied Thrinos and the musically related Eternal Memory. The idea of starting anew with a clean slate (tabula rasa) is a seductive one. But the past cannot be denied so easily: we need to accept it without being obsessed by it - the message communicated by this thought-provoking programme.