Music: Nigel, we hardly knew you

Stabat Mater Spoleto Festival, Italy War and Peace Spoleto Festival, Italy The Kennedy Experience Royal Festival Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
Last month, when Simon Rattle was appointed to the Berlin Philharmonic, there was dancing in the streets. When Richard Hickox, a few weeks before, was appointed to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, it passed almost unnoticed. Wales is not Berlin. Hickox is not Rattle. And it's tempting to define the difference as local stardom versus international.

But that undervalues Hickox. His achievements in the past few years have been amazing - founded on an ability to pull off grand events spectacularly well, and with the sort of British casts you wouldn't have believed could do it. Last year's Parsifal at the Three Choirs Festival was one. Another is the epic War and Peace at the Spoleto Festival in Italy.

Spoleto is an institution, founded by Gian Carlo Menotti 41 years ago and with Menotti still at the centre of its life - which, in the past, has glittered with the starriest of names. The stars are thinner on the ground these days, and you don't find yourself next to Sophia Loren at supper. But Spoleto remains a force in European culture and the perfect venue for a festival.

The town is small, old, and full of churches, squares, and hidden theatres. For the big events there's a cathedral, with a long, terraced Piazza del Duomo that lends itself to open-air concerts. And above all there's a pervasive sense of the festival spirit that so many British enterprises try to rustle up but never get beyond a bit of bunting in the street.

One thing that helps is the army of young musicians, mostly from America, who fly in either to become the Spoleto Festival Orchestra or to take part in the concerti di mezzogiorno that run every day in a tiny 18th- century theatre off the main square. The heat is blistering; the auditorium is packed solid with bodies bulging out of little theatre-boxes that can barely contain them. The whole thing is like a scene from Gillray, with a cheerful mayhem from which you'd never expect anything very serious to emerge. And yet, I know of few places where performances are more intensely given or received. The mezzogiorno concerts this year were no exception, with artists like the Borromeo Quartet, pianist Jeremy Denk, and violinist Corey Cerovsek: all American, all virtuosic, and a joy to hear.

But these are the small treasures of Spoleto. The grand ones are where Richard Hickox comes in, because he has been Spoleto's overall musical director for the past three years. Last Sunday night he conducted a vast open-air performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater and the Poulenc Gloria: an Event with a capital E, which was broadcast live on Italian television. It featured British soloists like Susan Bullock and Pamela Helen Stephen whose distinction could only make a visiting critic swell with national pride.

It isn't easy to sing in such circumstances - amplified - and establish anything like personality or presence. But these artists did; and they couldn't have asked more from Hickox, who held the performances together with a conviction that disciplined the fairground elements of both scores.

Personally I've always found the Stabat Mater pretty risible - partly for Rossini's music, which recounts the sorrows of the Blessed Virgin at the foot of the cross with brutal cheerfulness, and partly for the Latin text, which endlessly starts phrases with the words "Fac me". I learnt it as a schoolboy and I hear it still with schoolboy's ears. But thanks to Hickox's exacting dignity, I didn't smirk once. Well, just once, and barely visibly.

The biggest thing of all, though, last weekend was War and Peace: Prokofiev's opera from the Tolstoy novel which is arguably the toughest nut to crack in modern lyric repertory. With four hours of music, 72 solo roles, and 13 scenes that encompass full-scale battles and Napoleon marching through the burning streets of Moscow, its demands out-Wagner Wagner. And, although the "Peace" scenes play domestically, like TV adaptations of Jane Austen, they still come with a turnover of event and dramatis personae so rapid that the characters dissolve into cartoon-like thinness. When they reassemble for their curtain call - several hours after some of them last appeared - it's hard to remember who you're clapping. With a dramatic time-span that leaps seven months between scenes one and two and 13 months between scenes three and four, it's also hard to feel a sense of continuity to hold the thing together. Such are the hazards in converting fiction of biblical length to theatre of manageable proportions.

At Spoleto, with a modest stage, ad hoc orchestra, imported Russian chorus and a cast of largely British, non- star soloists, you'd think it wouldn't stand a chance. In fact, it was a great achievement: not a flawless show, but a heroically courageous one, and with its British singers turning in performances of unexpected stature.

Alan Opie as Napoleon was the one artist I'd have put money on to do well, and he did. But the quality of Roderick Williams's Andrei took me by surprise. So did the grizzled fierceness of Alan Ewing's Kutusov. The smaller roles had young artists like Richard Coxon and Henry Moss all doing brilliantly - as I hope you'll hear in the recording that Chandos was making from these live performances, for release in due course.

What you'll also (I hope) hear is Hickox's all-encompassing grasp of a score that Prokofiev intended as a salute to the chief traditions of Russian opera: Tchaikovskian lyricism in the "Peace" scenes, and Musorgskian historic grandeur in the "War". With that inspirational ability to make musicians perform better than they should - something Hickox definitely shares with Simon Rattle - it was unforgettable. A show to ponder and to cherish.

Such is the nursing comfort of the human mind that I've already forgotten the dismal spectacle of something called "The Kennedy Experience" at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday. It sounded like it could be a fun-ride at a theme park. Actually, it was the artist formerly known as Nigel, busking his way through monotonously New Age arrangements of Jimi Hendrix hits from the 1960s.

I can't claim much expertise on Hendrix, but I'm sure he didn't deserve this; and nor, frankly, do those of us who once believed Kennedy to be a real musician. Now he's just an act, a turn. I made efforts not to be distracted by this when he came on to the platform on Wednesday - baggily shambolic, like a cross between a Bombay bus-conductor and a garden gnome, tea-mug in hand.

I closed my eyes and listened. Really listened. But apart from a vestigial token of the fluency and muscular attack that used to mark his playing, there was nothing here to say this was the same violinist who, 14 years ago, made the finest recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto ever released. Better than Menuhin. Better than anyone.

There was no printed programme for this concert but there was a leaflet, distributed at the door, with a quote in characteristically shooting- from-the-hip style. "If a musician doesn't reach personal and unexpected realms with his music," says Kennedy, "what the f--- is he doing?" It's a good question. What are you doing, Nigel?

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