MUSIC / Partial view of the East: Nicholas Williams on Inter Artes and the Britten Sinfonia

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Reflecting fashionable interest, the cross-cultural group Inter Artes believes there's more to oriental music than karaoke.

Precisely what, however, remained unclear at their Purcell Room evening. The concert was shared by Western composers who'd dabbled in Chinoiserie but stayed European, and oriental composers who'd covered more than half the ground the other way. As a view of the East it was selective and provisional. And eccentric, given the music-hall overtones of the event's title, 'Pearls of the


Even so, there was Hong Kong-born soprano Nancy Yuen to lend the experience continuity and presence overall. Her clear, refined readings of Stravinsky's Three Japanese Lyrics and the Quatre Poemes Hindous by Maurice Delage were well partnered by Anthony Green's responsive accompaniments. Strauss's Gesange des Orients needed a more nourished voice than hers, but with the mezzo Karen Fodor in the Fable of the Phoenix by Ho Wai-On, also from Hong Kong, she was again in excellent form.

Each of this cantata's eight movements was a brief tone poem mixing composed and improvised material. The conductor, Roger Montgomery, made the most of delicate textures that sometimes recalled Stravinsky's Agon, including a sumptuous trio for flute, viola da gamba and bass lute. Although it was clearly Wai-On's evening (concluding with her humorous fantasy Narcissus and Turandot), a piece from the younger generation of mainland Chinese composers would have made for interesting contrast.

As it was, the multiphonics of Isang Yun's Adagio, brilliantly played by the flautist Rowland Sutherland, were a taste of traditional modernism, South Korean- style. The Willows Are New, by another veteran, Chou Wen-Chung, struck a more humane pose, swinging its nursery rhyme tune through a landscape of chiming piano chords. These pieces were full of musicianship, although, like the concert itself, uncertain where to take it.

And unlike the recently formed Britten Sinfonia, which gave its London debut to a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall. In the matter of names, the association would purely have delighted the composer himself, no less for the impeccable playing of all concerned than the varied programme.

Partly this was the influence of Nicholas Cleobury, among this country's most dynamic and versatile conductors, and clearly the orchestra's guiding light. Partly, of course, it was the gift of individual artists. Nicholas Daniels offered beautifully phrased oboe solos in Copland's jazzy Music for the Theatre, and joined with violin, cello and bassoon in Haydn's rarely heard B flat Sinfonia Concertante. Stephen Bell added the exquisite lustre of solo horn in the 'midnight' episode of Britten's Nocturne, sung by the tenor John Mark Ainsley with just a hint of the corruption at the edges of this work.

But the real celebrities were the largely female string band (token males in first violins and cellos), who were faultlessly balanced and secure in attack in even the toughest parts of the evening's London premiere, Philip Cashian's Faint Harps and Silver Voices. Driving itself to a high-speed climax from a background procession of harp and piano, the piece found its sonorite trouve in the mystic timbre of bowed cymbals.

Theirs was a thrilling sound for an ending, and like the subtle dovetailing of sections earlier on, witness both to the composer's technical precision and imagination. His main achievement so far has been with works for orchestral and chamber forces. But to judge from the dramatic focus of Faint Hearts - a Britten-Pears Foundation commission - he would respond with equal spirit a theatrical venture.