MUSIC / Never mind the quality, feel the diversity: The Silent Twenties? Robert Maycock on setting Blackmail to music

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The Independent Culture
IT'S GETTING better, this Millennium business. When it started two years ago, the decade-by-decade survey of the century looked like a complacent flip through the usual icons of contemporary culture. Now we're into the Twenties it shows signs of a reassessment - not least in reflecting that, unlike the 19th century, the really vital changes often had nothing to do with 'high' art at all.

'Sounds and Silents', the Matrix Ensemble's weekend concert series, sampled some of them: film scores, cabaret songs, and - rather tentatively - black American music. It didn't come up with masterpieces, other than 10 minutes of Kurt Weill; but then, if I read this reassessment right, the story of the whole century ought to be less about masterpieces, and more about democracy and diversity. Already it was stretching the decade to commission from Jonathan Lloyd a new score for the pre-talkie version of Hitchcock's 1929 film Blackmail. But the point needed making that silent cinema expected a strong musical experience to complement it.

Lloyd has never worked in the medium before, and his music sometimes fell into the beginner's trap of drawing too much attention to itself. But it had other knacks: knowing when the picture could carry the emotion, trusting silence, and drawing out the film's less obvious patterns. Hitchcock's control of pacing and tension, his repetition of images and themes, already adds up to something like a musical form, and a composer could get away with simply reacting to the main events. Lloyd had watched closely enough to see where music could enhance them: noticing, for instance, that tension peaks not at the moment of stabbing but at the terrified murderer's recoil half a minute later. You registered, through the ear, whether a scene-change was important; you heard, as much as saw, the obsession with staircases.

Apart from a late telephone bell, Robert Ziegler conducted a generally tight performance. For Saturday he devised a 'Berlin to Harlem' programme, a bit of a rag-bag, divided with unfortunate effect between an all-white first half and a jazz-influenced or American second. As things turned out, it was Damon Evans and the London Adventist Choir, singing Thirties Weill in the second half, that brought the evening to life towards the end, in the haunting Le Train du Ciel, which Weill wrote in Paris on his way into exile. Evans continued with a simple, affecting Fats Waller song, Black and Blue, and the Adventists unearthed one of Nathaniel Dett's Mendelssohn-meets-the-Blues choral numbers.

A whole evening exploring this repertoire might have been a livelier bet. Instead, a sequence of sub-Weill songs was delivered by Andrew Shore in an increasingly desperate frenzy of operatic camp, and by Maria Friedman with all the decadence of a rose growing among ruins. Again some real Weill, Surabaya Johnny, drew twice as much pathos and passion from Friedman. It's bad luck on the other composers to sound, after the event, like John the Baptist figures. But that's one historical perspective that 'Towards the Millennium' seems unlkely to alter.