Conga-crazed but un-Caged

What with Fifties nights and dance premieres, BCMG hasn't had a moment's rest this month - bar those infamous 4 minutes 33 seconds.

While CBSO sets up its stall in the Towards the Millennium exhibition with the big stuff of the 1950s, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has been doing its bit to flesh out audience appreciation of the period's variety.

In the event, Simon Rattle's Bernstein evening on 7 March was on almost as large a scale as a standard symphony orchestra line-up. After a slightly shaky start to the opening West Side Story selection, things took off in excerpts from Wonderful Town: Kim Crisswell led a mind-boggling selection of Ohio naifs, a bone-headed college athlete and some conga-crazed Brazilian sailors in a hugely enjoyable performance of all the best bits. Beside this, Preludes, Fugues and Riffs seemed almost austere. But, loosened up by the musical theatre, Rattle and band coped splendidly with Bernstein's combination of near-Stravinskian dissonance and jazz.

At first sight, BCMG's second Fifties concert, last Sunday, looked a touch daunting. Indeed, one histrionically inclined "disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" left after Cage's Aria (with Fontana Mix), flinging his programme on to the stage (a fair number probably thought he was part of the piece). But the unmistakably positive response of much of the audience to this imaginatively constructed programme of modernist music showed that one man's chamber of horrors is very likely another's temple of delight.

A Blue Peter-like air was added by Judith Weir, who undertook to construct a piece based upon the hexagrams created, a la John Cage's Music of Changes, by asking each member of the audience to toss a coin on to a tray. The result, heard after the interval, sounded curiously calculated, but it certainly broke the ice.

Earlier on, Sasha Johnson did excellent things to Stockhausen's eminently approachable Zyklus. Nigel Robson excelled in Cage's Aria, as did Colin Lilley in Berio's Sequenza I. A salutary impression left by both the Cage, based on a prepared tape, and Varese's Poeme electronique, heard after the interval, was of how much of the fun has gone out of electroacoustic music-making. These two wackily original pieces have an inspirational, uncalculated quality that somehow liberates the medium from the corset into which it seems forced so much of the time these days.

The grand climax was a blistering performance of Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques with brilliant solo piano-playing from Tim Horton and a tight control of ensemble from Daniel Harding. The one disappointment of the evening was Cage's 4'33'' - an overly knowledgeable audience and an uncharacteristically quiet Adrian Boult Hall made for a rather dull rendition.

Three days earlier, at Warwick Arts Centre, BCMG had been engaged in its more usual activity of premiere-giving. This was Delicate, a collaboration between Motionhouse Dance Theatre, composer Howard Skempton and writer AL Kennedy. The title was rather too disarming for the angry, relentless deconstruction of relationships that followed. The music is inspirational accompaniment and, in the hands of three wonderfully attentive musicians, it developed an impressive momentum. Some of the more conventional stretches of dance seemed a touch repetitive, but the abstract numbers were deeply memorable, especially the opening tableau. Here a body floated in a sea of shark fins which slowly turned into Dali-esque arms, perfect in outline and proportion, but hopelessly lost in a surreal landscape.

n BCMG's second concert (Stockhausen, Cage, Berio etc) is broadcast at 9.50pm tonight on Radio 3

n `Delicate' is on tour to: tonight, Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells (01892 544699); Tuesday, Music Hall, Shrewsbury (01743 350763); 30 March, QEH, London (0171-960 4242); 2 April, Royal Theatre, Northampton (01604 32533); 25 April, Phoenix, Leicester (0116 255 4854); 3-4 May, Theatre Royal, Wakefield (01924 366556); 3 June, Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham (0121-605 6666)

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