MUSIC / For the birds: London premieres - Woolrich & Adams

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The Independent Culture
Though it's hard to dislike a composer who made a record of a nightingale the centrepiece of a major work, it's even harder, in the case of Respighi, to find good reasons for turning that admiration into respect. Tuesday's concert by the Orchestra of St John's Smith Square doubly reinforced the point. First, they played a mature work, The Birds, in which a piece about a nightingale is illustrated without the aid of mechanical devices (as in The Pines of Rome) but with parodies of Wagnerian bird music among richly scored versions of baroque keyboard pieces. The joke fell flat on its face. Secondly, the belated UK premiere of the youthful Leggenda and Humoreske for violin and orchestra, played with generous tone by Francesco Manara, showed that at 23, Respighi was no less talented, yet no less afraid to let slip the mask of technique by taking a real risk.

Such an attitude would no doubt be anathema to John Woolrich, whose Four Concert Arias also had their premiere at St John's. Woolrich has worked tirelessly to bring new musical dimensions to ethnic material. Though the Arias showed no obvious folksong borrowing, the lessons learnt in economy and precision of instrumentation and gesture were plain to hear. These are night-scenes from the world of The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni, yet with texts chosen from Casanova, Hoffmann and Goethe, so that each song not only finds its echo in the others, but offers an intriguing duality of source as well.

'Through song I grasp meaning not expressible in words,' reflected Donna Anna in the last aria, summing up the shadow realm intensity of the cycle. The leavening was 'Through the Dark Leaves', a song for three snakes from Hoffmann's Golden Flowerpot, sung with reptilian flair by the sopranos Sally Harrison and Julia Gooding and the mezzo Christine Cairns.

If Woolrich is fast approaching the point where writing opera is a necessity, John Adams, composer of Nixon in China, has turned from theatre to the concert hall. With its dreamy chaconne, nebulous prelude and toccata finale of predictable brilliance, his Violin Concerto, premiered by Kent Nagano and the LSO at the Barbican on Thursday, sounded like another winner. Yet for all the show - Gidon Kremer was the hard-working, flawlessly accurate soloist - there were few surprises. What was missing were any new ideas for the future of this most expressive and challenging of tonal forms.

In contrast, Nagano's own choice of movements from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet contained some fine surprises. Familiar themes turned up in new situations with a vividness and depth absent from the more popular orchestral suites. Playing was untidy in places; but at least you went home with a warm sense of genuine discovery.