MUSIC; Lights, sound, music... mud-wrestling?

Music Live 95 Birmingham / BBC Radio
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The Independent Culture
It was all a little reminiscent of the glory days of Birmingham's Year of Music - three BBC radio networks pumping on all cylinders, noisy goings-on in the park, temporary stages all over the city and concerts placed end to end. All very nice for the good citizens of Birmingham and a major treat for the standard concert-goer.

I worry, however, about Radio 3's colour sense. On Friday, the Town Hall, one of the city's more elegant venues, was lit, courtesy of the festival, with a garish intensity more suited to a mud-wrestling contest or a night with Julian Clary than an evening with the Academy of Ancient Music. In Symphony Hall, the same effect resulted in a cacophony of creaks and whirs during Brahms's Third Symphony as the lanterns cooled.

In a way such miscalculations are all part of the fun when marketing runs before planning. But beneath the tepid razzmatazz was a timely reminder that R3 remains the nation's most potent musical patron. A pity, then, that musical values seemed so askew at Friday's gala opening.

The players of the Academy of Ancient Music were clearly in fine form and, when given their head, gave as good an account of themselves as any current old-instrument band. But their conductor, Arnold Ostman, despite a strong track record on CD, seemed completely uninterested in the expressive instincts of the band. Phrases came and went without punctuation and the fast music in Beethoven's Pastoral lacked any hint of spring. David Owen Norris gave a gallant account of Mendelssohn's Second Piano Concerto; but on a fortepiano better suited to a good Christian burial than public exposure, the experience was less than rewarding.

Far more vivid was Friday's 50th birthday tribute to Vic Hoyland by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. The contrast between the grit of Hoyland's recent piano solo music and his chamber concerto, and the lyrical intensity of the string piece Of Fantasy was the best evidence that music is indeed live in '95, and all the better for Stefan Asbury's sympathetic direction and Rolf Hind's dazzling piano playing.

There were pleasures aplenty to come, notably Cheryl Studer's unstintingly beautiful rendition of Strauss's Four Last Songs with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the premiere of Poul Ruders's BBC commission, Concerto in Pieces. But the event that bestowed a real sense of festival on the whole enterprise was Mark Elder's performance of Verdi's Requiem with the CBSO and assorted choirs. Theirs was a blend of clarity and intensity that turned a warhorse into a young hunter. Best of all was the soprano Michele Crider, standing in at short notice, whose exquisite tone and unashamed dramatic force transfixed the audience.

In this era of the perfectible CD, the experience of live music, like stepping out of your front door, can seem unduly hazardous. For those addicted to virtuoso editing, the weekend offered several horrors, even in some of the best prepared performances. But events such as the Verdi Requiem made it clear that, in musical performance, the moment is everything.

Jan Smaczny