MUSIC / Speed freaks: Stephen Johnson on the East London Late Starters

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The Independent Culture
How do you introduce a challenging new work, if not with the conventional pre-concert talk? You can let it speak for itself, of course - so long as you can be assured of an understanding, well-prepared and technically first-rate performance. Another possibility is to try to lead people gradually into the world of the work's background ideas.

Option 2 is what the BBC Symphony Orchestra attempted in its Royal Festival Hall concert on Friday. Occupying the slot normally taken by the talk-plus-questions format was an extra new piece - a collective composition created by members of the East London Late Starters Orchestra in collaboration with the composer Steve Martland, and taking as its starting-point the question, 'How fast is music?' It was hardly surprising that the result, neatly dubbed About Time, sounded more than faintly Martland-ish in places, rather more surprising that a group with so many alleged beginners in its ranks seemed to cope so well with the tricky rhythmic patterns.

As an answer to that question about the nature of musical speed, About Time seemed on the short side, and there was a lingering feeling at the end that something else ought to happen - if only a group discussion; the Festival Hall also felt awfully big for such an intimate event, in spite of a far from discouraging attendance. But in essence this is a good idea with a lot of development potential. Is there any way to make it more collective still? Perhaps the BBCSO and the ELLSO might continue discussions.

After a shortish break, curtain went up on the main event, though before we heard Louis Andriessen's De Snelheid ('Velocity') there was a short discussion between Andriessen and Martland (a former pupil of the Dutch composer) - or rather, not a discussion: Martland just pressed a button and Andriessen took off; as, a minute or two later, did De Snelheid itself. The piece is 10 years old, and although this was a revised version we heard - its world premiere in fact - it retains its pioneering bluntness: gear changes in the wood-block continuo are abrupt, but the tensions between its pulses and those of the three orchestras build up nicely. In its final minutes the image of a ticking bomb looms large, but as to the question, how 'fast' is it? That's difficult. The patterns have changed, the pulses have quickened and finally wound down, and yet, for these ears at least, it's rather like running on the spot - exhilarating, but it doesn't actually get you anywhere.

Another pause for recovery, and then came Messiaen's vast Turangalla Symphony - hardly a gentle contrast to De Snelheid, except perhaps in the lush tranquility of its one true slow movement, 'Jardin du sommeil d'amour'. Here were rhythmic games in wild diversity, and pulse-superimpositions beside which Andriessen's sounded starkly primitive.

But comparison is not actually very instructive. Turangalla occupies its own universe - a bizarre place, somewhere between St John of the Cross, the Kama Sutra and Star Trek. Pianist Joanna MacGregor and conductor Mark Wigglesworth seemed to have decided between them that the best approach was unabashed wallowing. There were expansive tempos of protracted silences and a huge pause from Wigglesworth at the climax-point of 'Developpement de l'amour'. Rhythmic profile had its fuzzy moments, and ensemble - particularly initial attacks - could have been cleaner. And, like many interpreters, Wigglesworth seemed to have trouble recapturing former urgency after the slow movement. But it was a treat to hear a performance with so much personality and impassioned conviction. One may have left wondering what on earth - or anywhere - it was all about, but at the time it was enjoyable enough.