MUSIC / Panoramic vision: Nicholas Williams reviews the Royal Academy of Music's Da Capo festival

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The Independent Culture
The Royal Academy of Music's Da Capo festival last week featured Richard Rodney Bennett, Nicholas Maw and John Tavener, and devoted half an evening to the work of another popular if unsung alumni, David Palmer. As former Jethro Tull band-member and musical adviser to Genesis and Pink Floyd, Palmer can claim to have reached more listeners than all the others combined. Including his symphonic rock arrangements in Thursday's gala concert gave an added dimension to a remarkable musical retrospective.

With some 60 former academy composers programmed over five days of celebration, this was a panoramic vision of how music has been made in the latter part of our century - and just how many of our leading composers have emerged through this conservatoire. Middleground styles appeared alongside Seventies serendipity and new complexity. The voices that emerged were sometimes gentle, sometimes tough.

Or sometimes gentle and tough, as in the music of Tavener, heard in Wednesday's late evening concert at St Marylebone Parish Church. The focus was the London premiere of The Last Sleep of the Virgin, counterpoising muted clouds of string-quartet timbre against a background of offstage handbells. This uncompromising meditation on death and resurrection had been earlier matched by Funeral Ikos, sung by the RAM Chamber Choir and covering similar territory in more conventional choral terms. In the compelling simplicity of his sounds Tavener lays claim to a land entirely his own, and strangely parallels the compelling, if fearsome, textural complexity mastered by Harrison Birtwistle in Gawain's Journey, which rounded off Friday evening.

For the majority of academy composers in between, forging an identity has involved grafting chosen influences on to a bedrock of compositional craftsmanship. The result was often a fascinating play of allusive surfaces: Gershwin, Ravel and Copland in Howard Blake's Piano Concerto, confidently played from memory by Daniel-Ben Pienaar on Thursday; muscular, Fourth-Symphony Tippett turned to brilliant account in Edward Gregson's Blazon the following day.

Or it followed more exploratory paths. Paul Patterson's White Shadows on the Dark Horizon and Melody, Harmony by student-composer Shinuh Lee explored spectacular real-time sound effects. Generous sponsorship from IBM and the Vaughan Williams Trust ensured, among other aspects of the festival, the provision of the sumptuous orchestral percussion they required.

But composers and sponsors apart, the heroes of the week were the students. Under the inspiring direction of Nicholas Cleobury, the Academy Symphony Orchestra played with a more than professional verve and commitment for the task in hand. The week's outstanding solo performances were legion.

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