BBC SO/Gamba, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

The viola player as composer is ideally situated to write concertos. Sitting in the middle of things, ears finely tuned, violists know that they rarely occupy the high ground. Indeed, their role is usually to bind top and bottom by supplying a generous middle.

The viola player as composer is ideally situated to write concertos. Sitting in the middle of things, ears finely tuned, violists know that they rarely occupy the high ground. Indeed, their role is usually to bind top and bottom by supplying a generous middle.

The number of viola concertos written these days is staggering: the Israeli soloist Rivka Golani has had almost 60 written for her. But how many receive second performances? Indeed, the audience for such premieres often consists mainly of media and trade people.

Such was the audience for the world premiere of the composer/viola player Brett Dean's concerto. Dean, who took the solo role, recently left the august surroundings of the Berlin Philharmonic to become first and foremost a composer.

Dean has become something of a darling since his decision to begin composing in 1988. It's not every (youngish) composer who gets performances at the Cheltenham Festival; a co-commission from the BBC Symphony, LA Philharmonic, Symphony Australia and Sydney Symphony orchestras (for this concerto); and a forthcoming commission from Sir Simon Rattle with the Berlin Phil.

Is it deserved? On the strength of this, I'd say decidedly not. The 25-minute work is in three sections. The opening "Fragment" is a short, slow atmospheric introduction to a fast and furious main movement, "Pursuit". "Veiled and Mysterious" follows.

Of course, Dean knows how to write for the viola, and the work is scored to avoid the solo instrument being drowned. He can also play. But, oh, the tedium of the material, the flabbiness, the catch-all lexicon of 20th-century compositional expectations. Where's the originality? Or does a multi-commissioned work just try to please everyone?

The programme begun with Kurt Weill's Kleine Dreigroschenmusik. Under the direction of Rumon Gamba, it was hard to recognise the bitterly ironic music of Weill. Where was the incisiveness, the clarity, the dynamic variation of this sleazy, sexy work? Still, it was easily the most gripping part of the night, if the shortest. Rachmaninov's three Symphonic Dances ended a lacklustre event.

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