Music: Where there's a Weill

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The Independent Culture

Wilton's Music Hall, London

Young Musicians at the Tabernacle

Tabernacle, London

Endless Parade

Royal Festival Hall, London

Kurt Masur/LPO: Bruckner 7

Royal Festival Hall, London

Most of the music of Kurt Weill is second-rate, but fascinating in its effort to be first, not third. And if you want a case-book study of that mezzanine, between-terms tension, it's his play-with-music , which opened this week, courtesy of Broomhill Opera.

is one long struggle on the brink of tedium, redeemed by punchy tunes and pungent harmonies, but undermined by the interminable self-indulgence of a text that either rants or whines. First performed in 1933, just after Hitler came to power and just before Weill picked up the scent of danger and fled to France, it was the last of the composer's German Moralities. And although it doesn't moralise as brutally as the collaborations between Weill and Brecht (the playwright here is Georg Kaiser, working in the traditions of German Expressionism rather than epic theatre) it is none the less didactic - with a lesson to teach us all about the gritty integrity of the working man, the predatory nature of the upper classes, and that old favourite, the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.

If these lessons were delivered with conviction, you could maybe live with them. But the problem with is that it carries no conviction. It's a phoney piece which delivers its points in an embalming dough of heavy-handed social satire and pathetic sentimental tosh. The curtain rises on the ritual burial of an "effigy of Hunger". It falls on the two central characters - once mortal enemies, now friends - setting out across the frozen , spurred onward to a new tomorrow by a Faustian Ewigweibliche. And in between comes the pantomime story of a policeman who shoots a robber, regrets it, wins the lottery, buys a castle, invites the robber to come and stay, then loses everything to a grasping caricature of aristocratic greed.

You can perhaps understand why the piece is seldom done. Apart from a Proms performance with the text cut back to the barest narrative, it hasn't been seen in London for some 10 years, when there was a staging at the Bloomsbury Theatre. Otherwise, the only part of that survives is one setpiece song, the "Ballad of Caesar's Death", which Weill gratuitously inserts into the middle act. It has precious little to do with the plot.

But another reason why we don't see is that it demands a large cast of actors who can sing, singers who can act, a chorus, and a far larger band than do cabaret scores like Threepenny Opera. And the performance of this is its saving grace. Danny Sapani takes the mostly acting role of the policeman with a rather touching dignity. Michael Hart-Davis sings the robber with a resinous, hard-edged assertiveness. There's a wonderful cameo from Daniel Norman as the lottery agent (I foresee a weekly spot on TV). And the orchestra play with a brash exuberance under Charles Hazelwood.

But this show has been sold largely on the strength of a new translation by Rory Bremner; and though it's perfectly decent, it's not the thing of startling brilliance you might expect. Like Gordon Anderson's production, it has the pace and energy to lift an averagely good piece. But not an averagely dull one. Thomas Hadley's designs have shabby chic; but it's hard to know how much of the rubble onstage is there for effect, and how much is there anyway. A thought which brings me to the curious performing space.

Broomhill Opera is a gutsy company which has always taken masochistic pleasure in uncomfortable, half-derelict venues. It began its life in the distinctly run-down private theatre of an old Victorian country house called Broomhill. But now it has excelled itself in the discovery of Wilton's Music Hall, a seriously forlorn shell in Whitechapel with a great potential for small-scale music theatre - given several million pounds more restoration work. For the time being it's a building site. And arrangements on the night I went were not impressive - the publicity material I was sent screwed up on small but useful matters like the start-times of performances.

My other stop this week on London's alternative venue trail was The Tabernacle: a Byzantine chapel in Notting Hill which has been turned into a community- arts space. On Sunday afternoons it's home to a new concert series: Young Musicians at the Tabernacle. And last Sunday featured the laid-back percussion duo of Julian Warbuton and Colin Currie, who are the stars of the post-Evelyn Glennie heavy-hitters' circuit. What struck me most about their programme, though, was not the heavy-hitting bits. It was the subtlety and elegance of what they did: exquisitely refined in scores like Goldrush by the Dutch composer Jacobter Veldhuis which set out to seduce the ear rather than batter it to aural pulp. For a percussion show, this concert had peculiar charm. Not least when someone strolled through a side door (the Tabernacle is a mixed-use building, full of straying folk) and, without realising she was on a public platform, asked Currie for the time. His sang-froid was exemplary.

Wednesday brought the premiere of an orchestral score, Millennium Scenes by Richard Causton, which had been commissioned by the BBC as a curtain- raiser to its new "Endless Parade" series of post-war British music. Andrew Davis and the BBCSO were the performers. And the piece turned out to be 15 minutes of misgivings about the bona fides of millennial roof-raising. Written for a large orchestra, with quarter-tone tunings and a six-man percussion department, the first half of the score was spikily emphatic: too controlled to be the big, anarchic, violent noise Causton presumably envisaged, and more of a tribute to Stravinskyan ragtime than I'd guess he meant it to be. The second half - clearly intended as a balm to the brute busyness of the first - struck me as the truly forbidding section, despite score markings like berceuse and chorale. But maybe that's a personally perverse response.

One other interesting thing about this concert was that its core programme was announced as representing the triumvirate of Great British composers of the post-war period. And they were ... Britten, Tippett, Birtwistle. So it's official. Maxwell Davies counts no more among the premiere division Hall of Heroes.

Finally, a hero whose credentials I questioned when he was announced, last autumn, as the LPO's intended Principal Conductor. Kurt Masur. He wouldn't be my own choice: I'd have gone for someone younger and more adventurous. But on the other hand, he has maturity and stature, and those qualities came through last weekend in a magisterial reading at the RFH of Bruckner 7. It was done with what you might call muscular serenity. Bruckner 7 is an exercise in scales and sequences and repetitions. It's the task of an interpreter to turn these commonplaces into 18-carat spiritual currency. Masur comes close to that requirement, with a fiercely quavering platform technique reminiscent of Klaus Tennstedt. If he could only be a Tennstedt ... we'd be looking forward to a rerun of the South Bank's glory days.