Festivals: The fast track: Keith Potter in Lille and Strasbourg

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The Independent Culture
PLANNED to mark the debut of the Channel Tunnel, Lille's opening concert actually celebrated the newly-arrived TGV Nord Europe with its commission from Michael Nyman. The result was MGV, Musique a Grande Vitesse, a 25-minute work played by the Orchestre National de Lille under Jean-Claude Casadesus, its 'engine' (the composer's own word) provided by the addition of parts for the Michael Nyman Band. There was, as well, The Piano Concerto, based on Nyman's music for Jane Campion's cult film La Lecon de Piano; the soloist here was Kathryn Stott.

For reasons involving another part of the French rail system I missed The Piano Concerto while still on a TGV from Paris. MGV itself turned out substantial in more than length. Comparisons with the real thing are of limited value: MGV is relentless, but it's quicker to get going and more prone to speed changes. Though I'd have welcomed more timbral variety - Nyman's Band in fact doesn't feature all that prominently - this work's harmonic subtleties, among other things, suggest that MGV is more than merely an occasional piece, and that Nyman's already sizeable orchestral output is maybe unjustly reflected in Britain.

Strasbourg's Musica festival, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, looks hard-line avant-garde by comparison with Lille. But the emphasis is firmly on offering a context for its new works. Programmes include opera and music-theatre and play to consistently large, seemingly well-informed audiences. In three days, I heard a local jazz big band playing Franco Donatoni and Mauricio Kagel, and Georges Aperghis's committed musicians performing his entertaining and extraordinary pieces, somewhat like Kagel's. Two major programmes given by the Ensemble InterContemporain included a big, bold piece called Seuils from the young Frenchman Marc-Andre Dalbavie, the latest version of Boulez's . . . explosante-fixe . . . and the best concert performance I ever reckon to hear of Elliott Carter's Double Concerto.

The ubiquitous Arditti Quartet's recital consisted mainly of premieres, pride of place in a strong programme going to Benedict Mason's Second Quartet. This Englishman's First Quartet was a huge torrent of post-modern delight. His Second is more obviously experimental: the third of its six movements, for instance - involving the cellist using his instrument largely percussively and muttering an incomprehensible text - comes dangerously close to the merely bizarre (Mason's chief fault). But the fifth movement - all pizzicato, largely with plectra, in which Gyorgy Ligeti meets George Formby - is inventive and magical; and overall the quartet immediately seems more than just the sum of its amazing string parts.

The Orchestre National de Lille and Casadesus play next month in Northampton (10), Birmingham (11), London (12) and Leeds (13)