Classical music: The shock of the cautious

Stephen Johnson on a showcase for new music at the Spitalfields Festival

The SPNM - Society for the Promotion of New Music - took over Monday's concert at the Spitalfields Festival, with the aid of the Nash Ensemble. As the title "SPNM London Showcase" suggests, the society (or at least its selection method) was as much on display as the composers it promoted. Five composers were featured. Each showed at least an acceptable level of accomplishment, but only two showed evidence of more than that.

Maud Hodson's Woodpecker - a quirky, witty miniature - made a great deal from two tiny ideas: a wood-tapping rhythm, and a modal melodic figure, which at one point sparked off something like a fugue. At about three minutes' duration, it was the only piece on the programme that didn't outstay its welcome. Gavin Thomas's Leopardi Songs - four settings of tortured, introspective verse by the romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi - had a tendency to sprawl; still, there were some quite beautiful passages, revealing a fastidious poetic sensibility, and mezzo Fiona Kimm sang the surprisingly grateful vocal writing elegantly and very expressively.

Otherwise ... Philip Clarke's Steinzas One, a setting of a one-line poem by Gertrude Stein, began well, but the melodic flow soon petered out. Joyce Bee Tuan Koh's IX Lives of a Cat was inspired by Stan Bales's jokey adaptations of famous 20th-century paintings (each one adds a cat and a witty-ish one-line caption). Alas, wit and humour were very thinly spread in Koh's nine pieces. Matthew Jeffrey's Letterbocks, based on the letters page of Viz magazine, did raise a laugh or two; but then the Viz items are funny anyway. Jeffrey's adaptations of blues, swing and folk styles were skilful enough; what they lacked was an inventive, subversive spark to match the texts. Letterbocks reminded me of too many other attempts by classically trained musicians to show that they can let their hair down after all. You chuckle obediently because you want them to succeed, but in your heart you know it's an effort. The impression at the end of the evening was of overwhelming safeness. Couldn't the SPNM have found one young composer who was prepared to live just a little dangerously?

Comparing composers in their twenties and early thirties with such a mature, established figure as Judith Weir may not seem very fair, but Weir's Thread! - performed the following evening by the Mephisto Ensemble and Eleanor Bron, with all her customary style - showed more adventure and youthful elan than all five SPNM pieces put together. Based on the images and narrative texts of the Bayeux Tapestry, Thread! entertained and challenged - how closely do we look at this famous cultural icon? Weir has obviously looked hard, and expressed her findings with masterly irony. Mephisto went on to perform the complete Stravinsky The Soldier's Tale in a staging that sparkled erratically - too erratically, perhaps, but with some fine comic touches, especially from Tony Kilbane as a pungently malevolent Devil. Mephisto's playing didn't quite match that of the Nash Ensemble in The Soldier's Tale chamber suite the previous evening (the Nash's energy and precision were exceptional), but it was fun all the same.

Spitalfields Festival continues to 26 June, Christ Church, Commercial St, London E1. Festival hotline: 0171-377 1362

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