MUSIC REVIEW / Sounds familiar: Robert Maycock at the Britten Theatre for 'New Visions, New Voices'

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The Independent Culture
Here's an entertaining, provisional evening. English National Opera's Baylis Programme set out to 'discover' young composers and writers. It's a task with impossibility built in: you always find what you look for, while discovery is what you aren't looking for. But if you weren't too worried about originality there was plenty to take straight, and plenty more to speculate on.

The straightforward cases, production nicely matched to creation, were two: Still, with words by James Yarker and music by Richard Chew, and Inspector Otto and the Long-haired Bicycle Maniac (Tom Green, Todd McNeal). Otto was manic comedy, obsessional and enthusiastic, about green subversion on two wheels, staged with panache by David Sulkin, who realised you can't do jokiness by halves. Its music, eclectic and a bit slick, began with a bluesy unaccompanied chorus to present some of the characters, hinted at Copland's Appalachian Spring in scenes of ecological correctness, and went for adman's Bach in a send-up of sexual car-selling techniques. But then these were only arguably new voices: they collaborated on a piece for the National Youth Music Theatre three years ago.

Yarker and Chew have worked together before, too; the composer again comes straight out of the university system. This time the ambitions radiate a high seriousness and a literary aroma, re-examining a 19th-century expedition to look for the North-West Passage in the light of a modern exhumation of three of its members who died there. It's leavened by shafts of satire, but the backward-looking atmosphere spreads from story to score, a confident essay in mid- century romantic urgency. Carefully produced by Rebecca Meitlis, Still had polish, but it wasn't taking risks.

If you wanted rough edges, the less comfortable excitement of a talent searching and trying, the place to be was Fabienne Audeoud's The King Comm - more performance art than opera, with stylised movement and a row of mouthing heads on television screens. The musical language knew its American minimal sources, and at one dramatic turning-point it broke up into reinvented animal babblings out of Meredith Monk. The story lost itself in sci-fi mystification, though Stephen Langridge's production gave it the full stylish works. But this piece exerted its grip, rather, at the times it didn't quite come off, when a raw, direct and stubborn voice could be heard testing itself.

My favourite piece was the least pretentious and least formed. Dina and Rosabella Gregory, twins of 16, threw off Melissa's Maelstrom in a week. It has an adolescent's sharp view of a caged-in woman cracking up, and a stream of pop melody with a touch of soul here and a hint of rap there. The tunes were shapely and strong, the simple harmonies had a grand timelessness. It sounds like Pseuds' Corner to report Handelian echoes and a baroque passacaglia feeling: was it what they meant, or did it creep in? For Sulkin soft- pedalled the action, and the singing style was too precious and 'operatic'.

Most insiders insist that what matters is the process of getting there, not the finished product. But the process itself shouldn't be beyond criticism: we have seen examples in the past of studio companies failing to understand what composers were about and forcing them into moulds they did not fit. No signs of damage this time, at least; but New Visions, New Voices was at its best with what was most familiar. If real visionaries were there, they weren't coming through on their own terms.