A night of mail music

The Post Office is to be congratulated for sponsoring a particularly interesting concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday. Dull as it may sound, the Royal Mail, Post Office Counters and Parcelforce Worldwide saw a mutual goal - collaboration and communication - in the aims of London Musici's Image, Music, Text. The net was cast wide to include music with text, music with image (in this case film) and music alone... which actually would have been greatly improved by a text or an image. All the music was by British composers, and a more varied lot would have been hard to find. The evening began in cabaret style with Out of the East, a set of six poems by James Fenton on the subject of war with music by Dominic Muldowney. Muldowney's fluency in writing "like" Kurt Weill is astonishing, capturing as he does the smokiness and bitterness, helped by using the tell-tale instruments - muted trumpet, sax, drums. But Muldowney's melodic gift is his alone. Mary Carewe is a chansonniere to be watched, with a clear, clean voice, commanding, intimate, and musically intelligent as she coarsened sounds at just the right moment.

How George Benjamin's Antara got into the programme was less obvious. Without text or image, the nicest sounds were pan-pipes. But Benjamin being an IrCam graduate, it was electronic gadgetry that produced the sound rather than the real thing, a pity since outside the QEH a delightful band of Peruvian pan-pipers were actually on hand. The piece seems to involve conflict between "fake" pan-pipes, two modern flutes (Anna Noakes and Helen Keen), some strings, grasping and growling bass trombones and clunking percussionists reminiscent of Nieblung gold-fashioners. Not a pretty piece. And, without images, nor was Michael Nyman's suite from Prospero's Books, his last collaboration with Peter Greenaway, which as we all know has the most sumptuous pictures. Without them, the scrubbing and chugging does seem cruelly exposed. And what is a conductor to do? Mark Stephenson opted for the "fake" Mahler approach, not entirely convincingly. The greatly expanded orchestra played well in tune (not always the case with Nyman's bands) but, without amplification, textural differences could not be heightened, a sacrifice to internal (and dull) balance.

The main excitement of the evening were contributions from the youngest generation: three extremely short films, directed by graduates from the National Film and Television School with music by composers from the London College of Music. All three were extremely accomplished, even if "outdoor" music does so inevitably spell flutes. Only Connect (director Amanda Radman, composer Laura Rossi) wittily dwelt on looks, planes, and telephonic communication while 2 Letters (directed and composed by Derek Nisbet) nostalgically posited the sending of a letter in 1936 and its reply in June 1997. May Day, directed by Sian Roderick with music by Daniel Giorgetti, used footage from the General Election wryly capturing delicious "Tony and Cherie" moments and the reactions of a baffled monk. The Post Office's greatest claim to fame, Britten's monumental Night Mail, narrated by Sam Parks, wound up a fascinating evening.

Annette Morreau

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