Don't look, listen

Igor's Boogie Almeida Opera 1995
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Starting last weekend, Almeida Opera (a modestly re-vamped version of the old Almeida Festival of Contemporary Music) has been presenting a series of six concerts under the title Igor's Boogie. Igor's Boogie? No, it's not a work by Stravinsky but a title coined by that Mother of Invention, Frank Zappa - well-known for his predilection for provocative titles - whose work as a "serious" composer (if that isn't an oxymoron) has been programmed alongside the "legit" classical (Zappa, the underground rock hero, comes into his own tonight).

The series, enterprisingly devised by John Woolrich, has concentrated on a group of composers born around the first quarter of this century - most of them still alive (though not, in these straitened times, to be found in attendance at the Almeida) - whose striking similarities can now be seen as presenting an alternative "way" to the Second Viennese School. Whereas Schonberg and his followers attempted to control the structure of music through harmonic systems, this group saw that rhythm, texture and colour could provide equally effective structural devices.

Woolrich's programmes have been devoted largely to familiar chamber works by Varese, Stravinsky and Ligeti, unfamiliar works by Aldo Clementi and Franco Donatoni (leading figures of the Italian avant-garde but scarcely known here) and, most notably, works by the maverick American, Conlon Nancarrow, now in his 83rd year. Capricorn and the Composers' Ensemble have shared the workload, with the young and heavily tipped Daniel Harding conducting on and off.

Of the two concerts I caught - Sunday and Wednesday evenings - it was clear from head-nodding players that certain unconducted works could well have done with a conductor - Michael Levinas's Almeida commission Three Bagatelles - while other works that do not call for a conductor - Birtwistle's Five Distances for Five Instruments or Ligeti's Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet - had the gifted Harding at the helm.

When funds are tight, a confident guide (and that certainly is what Harding appears to be) can cut down the number of rehearsals by sorting out cues and providing an anchor in music that is rhythmically very complex and needs to be held together spatially. But the presence of a conductor can serve, paradoxically, to emphasise complexity by drawing attention to the structure rather than to the sound of a work: in Donatoni's Blow for wind quintet, the very sight of Harding's beat in relation to the players' sounds confounded expectations.

Thomas Ades, in his guise as virtuoso pianist, performed perhaps the most rhythmically complex work ever written - Nancarrow's Three Canons for Ursula - where, in Canon No 2, allegedly receiving its world premiere, the pianist is required to play simultaneously in four different tempi. This exercise is mind-boggling if the complexity is explained - as Ades did - but the ear still registers its own pattern of shimmering notes - as it does in conductor-less works - and frequently with less complex results.

The Almeida may be too small for any real impact to be made by such spatial music as Ligeti's early Ramifications, but smaller works - Donatoni's Midi and Varese's Density 21.5 (played with astounding colours by the flautist, Ileana Ruhemann), Nancarrow's curiously Bartokian String Quartet and Hindemithian Trio, and even Zappa's Questi cazzi de piccione (in cod- Darmstadt mode) - were a joy to hear.

n Series ends 8pm tonight. Tel: 0171-359 4404