MUSIC / South of the border: Stephen Johnson on the first two concerts in the 'Lontano Latino' season of Latin American music

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The Independent Culture
HAVE the BBC Singers all got perfect pitch? However angular or tortuous the vocal writing in their Three Centuries of Choral Music at St James's, Piccadilly, last Friday the notes came through clear and true. The chromatic imitative passages in the latter half of Marlos Nobre's Yanomani are the kind of thing that can easily degenerate into a half-pitched fuzz, but the centre held, harmonies as well as lines in focus.

It wasn't quite all serene perfection. In Los Coflades de la Estleya, the last of three 'villancicos' by the late 17th-century Bolivian composer Juan de Araujo, the strings of wicked syncopations almost caught the singers out, but the conductor, Odaline de la Martinez, steered them (visibly concentrating hard) through the obstacles, and again the centre held.

Lontano ensemble's instrumental contribution didn't let them down. Villa-Lobos's early but fully characteristic Sexteto Mistico is a work they know well, as the easy grace and fluency of the playing showed. In the generously reverberant acoustic of St James's, its singing wind lines and washes of sound from guitar and harp bloomed and intertwined like growths in an equatorial rain forest. Two atmospheric choral miniatures from towards the end of Villa-Lobos's career, Duas Lendas Amerindias, made a perfect pairing - cooler, much more economical, but still strongly flavoured.

English composers as a breed are often characterised as 'eclectic'. Compared to the two recent pieces in this programme, Jesus Pinzon's Bico Anamo and Marlos Nobre's above-mentioned Yanomani, much of our home produce would sound determinedly insular. Both pieces cast their stylistic nets wide: not only do Latin, Amerindian and Western sounds mix richly, but modish dance-repetitive passages sit quite comfortably alongside sounds and gestures from the once-modish avant-garde. Presented as it was here, confidently and with sympathy, this was no problem. Like Villa-Lobos, these two composers - Nobre especially - make what they find their own, the diversity as fertile in their music as in their own opulently diverse cultures.

If the same diversity didn't seem to work in Michael Rosas Cobian's Southern Episodes - the penultimate piece in Lontano's ICA concert on Tuesday - it wasn't easy to say why. Was the performance less sympathetic? Did the familar parching effect of the ICA acoustic spoil the atmosphere? Was the composer's invention less striking or his stylistic fusion less dynamic? I can't decide. I do have a strong suspicion though that livelier, more up- front playing might have made the dislocating switches of style and texture in Betty Schramm's Inca-inspired Q'eros a lot more exciting.

There was much more satisfaction in the two home-grown works. Those for whom 'English' is, musically speaking, still a convenient form of abuse would no doubt have found plenty to deride in Martin Butler's Going with the grain: echoes of Vaughan Williams resounded clearly among accompanying hints of the Debussy Sonata for flute, viola and harp and Steve Reich-ish chords and rhythms. Remove the protective prejudices, though, and the piece sounds impressive: imaginative, unusually appealing solo marimba writing in true chamber music dialogue with the ensemble, plus a quiet reminder that a basis in repetition needn't preclude development or singing lines.

And as a finale, Lontano and the baritone Graham Titus led us compellingly through the first and second parts of Colin Matthews's 10-year-old The Great Journey - musically not quite as single-minded or powerfully focused as Suns Dance and Broken Symmetry, his chefs-d'oeuvre, but definitely well on the way.

Concert tomorrow, 7.45pm, Queen Elizabeth Hall, SE1 (071-928 8800)

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