MUSIC / The joys of sax

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The Independent Culture
AS COMPOSERS go, Mark- Anthony Turnage is street credible. His work voices contemporary myths of urban violence, prison blues, black consciousness. And for the past 10 years or so, his signature sound has been the saxophone: the outsider instrument par excellence which, apart from a handful of walk-on parts in modern orchestral literature, never really found a home until the jazz age. It's significant, I think, that composers have never agreed on where to place the saxophone in the layout of a manuscript score. Strauss put it between the clarinets and bassoons, Britten between the bassoons and horns, Ravel between the brass and percussion. And the man on the Clapham omnibus would probably tell you that the saxophone is a brass instrument, when it actually belongs to the woodwind, a close relative of the clarinet.

Little wonder that its timbre resonates with images of isolation and resistance, from desolate Edward Hopper Manhattan streetscapes to upbeat jam sessions in smoke-filled rooms. And all this imagery finds its way into Turnage's new work, bearing the title Your Rockaby, but otherwise the saxophone concerto he has spent so many years circumnavigating. As premiered by the BBC SO under Andrew Davis, its unbroken span of 22 minutes was a celebration of the instrument - and of the distinctive expressivity of the soloist, Martin Robertson. Like much of Turnage's work, it features an abrasive, driven urgency, but only as the outer skin to a romantic inner core. The orchestral writing is luscious and vivid - Turnage is a master of large forces - and the choice of soprano sax, high-pitched to rise out of thick textures, means there aren't too many problems with balance. A worthy addition to the remarkable series of scores Turnage has completed since the primal scream of his 1988 opera, Greek, it confirms that, in this case, street cred isn't confining. Turnage has a real technique, a real voice and a real imagination - which is more than you can say for many of his academically more pristine colleagues.

In an unlikely but inspired pairing, Your Rockaby was followed by Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony. This is a landmark score that never quite fulfills the heart-stopping dramatic promise of its opening cadence, but catches Vaughan Williams on the cusp between the old school of Elgar and Parry and the new direction of his own symphonic style. The composer's widow was in the audience, reminding me of a story she tells of VW working on the Sea Symphony in a boarding house on the Yorkshire Coast. He is playing what he's just written, when the landlady comes in. 'That's nice,' she says. 'Our postman plays that, but he plays it faster.' And there, I think, you have one of the great qualities of VW: a melodic gift so rooted in the English collective consciousness that his music seems to be recollected rather than invented. It's drawn from some pre-existing source - which Davis and his BBC forces tapped superbly.

Nuria Espert's dull decanting of Rigoletto into the neoclassical sobriety of a 19th- century gentleman's club is back at Covent Garden, no better than before. But it sounds good - or it did on the opening night, when Leo Nucci sang the role with incisive, dark-voiced power, a toneless roar at high volume, but still impressive. There were two memorable house debuts. Korean soprano Young-ok Shin indulged herself in 'Caro nome', but with such ravishing purity of tone that no one minded; and the commanding Australian conductor Simone Young, is, at 32, a better, antipodean Sian Edwards.

There was some good singing, too, in Massenet's Werther at the Royal Academy of Music. Ceri Sherlock's staging, in a sort of glass-sided trinket box (a comment on the precious sentiments of Werther?), worked well until the last act, when its artfulness went haywire. Aled Hall sang a committed, fluent, slightly OTT Werther; Violetka Ivanova a dramatically reserved but vocally fulsome Charlotte; and Tomas Tomasson's Bailli was something to sit up and take note of.

But the opera event of the week came with the launch of English Touring Opera's new season. ETO has suddenly and conspicuously got its act together. Of the two productions it will tour between now and July, one is good, the other brilliant. The good one is a new La Boheme, set by the director Thomas de Mallet Burgess in occupied Paris: a point that isn't pursued strongly but at least provides a fresh look at the Cafe Momus, now a chic little bar with an eclectic clientele of nuns and lesbians. You might miss the bustle of a traditional Momus scene, but with a chorus of 10 you can't generate much bustle. ETO at least uses its limited personnel creatively, enlarging each chorus member into a character that registers with the audience. Overall, the singing is strong - Adrian Clarke's Marcello especially so - and Martin Andre gets a handsome sound from the orchestra. You'd think that it was twice the size.

But the real prize is Stephen Medcalf's magnificent little production of L'Elisir d'Amore, which is smart, sharp, funny, and a start-to-finish pleasure. Medcalf transplants the storyline of rustic love to the American cornbelt, so it all looks like a scene from Oklahoma, with a job-lot of costumes from the Wrangler shop. But Medcalf has a wonderfully astute cast led by Susan Gritton, a truly lyrical (as opposed to Dresden china) Adina, and Niall Morris, whose Nemorino is as charmingly ingenu as they come. He needs to work on his strained top register. But it's a light, young voice with time to grow and plenty of potential. Decent Nemorinos under 50 are a rare breed. When you find an embryonic candidate, you have to cherish it. And wait.

'Rigoletto': ROH, WC2, 071-240 1066, Mon, Thurs. ETO tour details: 071-820 1131.

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