Music: It's the year of the world

Beyond Our Shores Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow Cherevichki Guildhall School, London Monteverdi Vespers Queens' College Chapel, Cambridge Invitation au Voyage St Johns, Smith Square, London
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The Independent Culture
Whenever the American composer John Cage was asked to explain his raucously disintegrated operatic parodies, Europeras, he described them - with a smile - as acts of vengeance. For centuries, he'd say, you Europeans have been sending this stuff across the Atlantic. Now I'm sending it back. We all knew that behind the smile he had a point. The dividing line between cultural exchange and cultural imperialism was always fragile. And if that was a sensitive issue for America, what did it mean for Africa or Asia, where we'd been sending our stuff - and bringing home the odd bauble in return - with even greater condescension?

It follows that a festival devoted to the traffic of ideas between European and non-European music is a minefield. A remarkable thing about the BBC's "Beyond Our Shores" series at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall is that it has covered the ground without casualties or recrimination. The only mild snipe was that of a Puerto Rican composer, Roberto Sierra, who asked in an interval chat for his music not to be considered "exotic". Where I come from, said Sierra, Wagner is exotic.

Had Sierra's new Percussion Concerto been as interesting as the way he talked about it, we'd have all been happy. But alas, this BBC commission turned out to be another of those athletic bash-abouts for Evelyn Glennie that mistake activity for substance. It was too attached to transient spectacle and was outclassed by its companion piece on the programme - James MacMillan's early masterpiece of "socially engaged" music, The Exorcism of Rio Sumpul.

Among the other highlights of "Beyond our Shores" there was a newly arranged suite from Britten's ballet Prince of the Pagodas and several shots of American minimalism, whose narcotic repetitions owe a certain debt to Eastern models and explain why subversive elements within the BBC have dubbed this festival "Beyond Our Snores". Their names and payroll numbers have been noted.

But the main event was a piece of modern archaeology: the disinterment of Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera, which attracted international attention when Kent Opera premiered it in 1987. But then, after a staging in America, it went to ground and was never seen again. In fact I'd never seen it at all; and as a newcomer to the piece I didn't think this Glasgow concert version worked hard enough to deliver the narrative. But fortunately, Weir's approach to story-telling is sharp: near-Calvinist in its severity, but with a wryly covert charm in its miniaturisation of what would otherwise be epic statements. The kind of Bonsai theatre that results - with great events matter-of-factly dispatched in a couple of lines - is, I suppose, a natural (if extreme) development of the foreshortening that opera always visits on its subject matter. But in Weir's hands it also becomes an ironic shadow of the real thing - which is to say, real Verdi, real Britten, or whichever other compositional models she takes and shrinks like a Jivaro head.

The ultimate irony of A Night at the Chinese Opera is that the Chinese influence is so limited. The sound world of the fabulous Orient barely infiltrates this score, except in a few details of melody and percussion. But the very economy and restraint of it all suggests an oriental atmosphere. And not to flinch from cliche, there's an inscrutability to Weir's invention which you might describe as Eastern. Her own libretto - about a young man inspired by Chinese opera to avenge a family injustice - ends with fascinating inconclusiveness. He fails. That's it. No tragedy, no triumph.

The Glasgow cast brought back a number of the artists involved in the original production, including Michael Chance and the (rather stiff) conductor Andrew Parrot. But there were fresh and animated contributions from soprano Adey Grummet and tenor Karl Daymon, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra achieved the clipped finesse the score demands. Next step, I hope, will be a proper staging. It would make a good piece for the comeback Kent Opera keeps promising to make.

Most of the rest of the performances I heard this week were by students, including a spirited stab at Tchaikovsky's folk-comedy Cherevichki (The Tsarina's Shoes) at the Guildhall School. Telling the same story as Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve, complete with suitors-in-the-sack routine and a sudden narrative deviation into madcap foot-fetishism, it's a gift of a piece that should be better known. The chorus writing is superb, and there's a choice soprano role, Oksana, taken here by a distinct star- on-the-rise, Natalie Christie.

There was star material too in some of the soloists pulled together for a rough-edged but invigorating Monteverdi Vespers in Cambridge last weekend. It played to a packed house in Queens' College Chapel, a riot of pink-and-green Gothic Revival that makes a fair substitute for the gaudy of St Mark's Basilica. The pro-am forces held together well. And there was some exquisitely ethereal singing in the "Audi Coelum" and the "Duo Seraphim" from Simon Wall, a young New College tenor of potential.

But the week's best singing came in Monday's instalment of the French song series, Invitation au Voyage, at St Johns, Smith Square. The programme was a blissful mix of Poulenc, Ravel and Roussel (essentially a symphonist but with one or two vocal gems to his name like the evocative "Le Jardin Mouille" slipped in here). The two joint-soloists were a joy: the baritone Gary Magee controlled, secure and self-possessed, with just the right glint in the eye (and voice) to do the salon-campery of Poulenc tasteful justice; the soprano Sarah Fox dispensed atmosphere and colour with alluring style. And commanding the tone of these performances was the pianist Malcolm Martineau, whose mastery of French repertoire is absolute. His quiet intelligence and feel for pace and line in Poulenc's 1930s songs Tel Jour, Telle Nuit, explains what the composer meant when he wrote of them that "calmness in a love poem can alone give intensity. All the rest is nurse's kisses". Having had more nurse's kisses than I'd care to number in recitals, I can vouch for that. And for the fact that Martineau is very special.

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