MUSIC / Into the twilight zone: Meredith Oakes on Meltdown and the Kronos

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The Independent Culture
CASUAL clothes and somewhat casual playing from the London Philharmonic on Wednesday. Admittedly the Queen Elizabeth Hall, venue for this concert in the new South Bank summer festival, Meltdown, has a dry acoustic. But the lack of glow in Alexander Goehr's sharp-witted Metamorphosis/Dance reflected a lack of imagination and relish in the performance. Franz Welser-Most has a clear beat and a clear mind: everything was where it should be, and the texture was transparent enough for all the missed opportunities to be obvious.

How can Welser-Most be blamed for the fact that the LPO is currently residing not just on the South Bank but also in the doghouse? His appointment - young, media-friendly, a technical whizz without a daring artistic character - looks now like the philistine outcome of over-management seeking the kind of assets it could understand. The LPO ceased utterly to be fun at about the time it issued a press release announcing its residency and crowing over having negotiated the right to pre-empt other orchestras' programmes. Art is not about corporate advantage, it is about loving life - and artistic organisations that forget it crumble from within.

George Benjamin, conducting the premiere of his Sudden Time, was able to freshen spirits and obtain pianissimi of tactile softness and fortes of real intensity. His title reflects the experience of time seeming to flow at different speeds within the framework of clock-time. Such differences were built into the score, so that the same material could pass at different rates through several parts of the orchestra at once.

Unlike Bach's augmentations and diminutions, such subtle bendings of time were not plain to hear. But the twilight-zone impressionist idyll that emerged was no less charming for that. It was dream imagery - muffled and muted dream colours; elusively tumbling and scurrying dream events - that made the piece so vivid and so successful with the audience. The basic set of intervals had in itself an eerie underwater-flower quality and was refracted through the unusual colourings of an orchestra that included a piano played with its practice pedal down and a big array of soft percussion.

Another kind of mind-game with the Kronos Quartet late the following night at St Giles, Cripplegate. La Monte Young's Chronos Kristalla consists of one chord, played in harmonics with waverings, splits and fibrillations, now with its inner thirds showing, now with its outer sevenths. It was a beautiful chord, but listening to it for 90 minutes constituted a meditative exercise rather than a concert. Putting it on was a bold gesture characteristic of the Kronos, whose own attractive world-music-cum-West-Coast-style festival was running at the Barbican on almost the same days as Meltdown. The big crowd at St Giles was smaller by the end of the piece, but those who stayed made it plain that they were pleased. Indeed David Harrington, gangling leader of the Kronos, has the innocently absorbed, dangerous air of a man people would follow through the Himalayas in clogs and still wind up believing they'd had a good time. Does he want a job at the LPO?

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