BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin, Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

With Leonard Slatkin at the helm on Sunday afternoon, the warning signs were there: the BBC SO's chief conductor seemed to be behind the sudden influx of decidedly old-fashioned works by American composers at this summer's Proms. Sunday's commission to the 27-year-old British composer Joseph Phibbs was apparently made on Slatkin's recommendation, following the premiere of Dream of a Summer Night, also by the BBC SO, at last year's Cheltenham Festival.

Phibbs may presently be completing a doctorate at Cornell University, and influenced by American landscapes, but his inclinations aren't remotely in the sock-it-to-'em Americana or drool-school league. The composer himself suggested, in an interesting pre-concert talk, that the American tendency to encourage composers to write only the most accessible orchestral scores isn't followed by British commissioning organisations. Certainly, the five short movements of In Camera – given its European premiere on Sunday, following its first performance just a week before in Macau on the BBC SO's Far East tour – demonstrate considerable fibre. Phibbs also studied with Harrison Birtwistle, and it was hard not to hear this composer's influence in the ways In Camera divides up the orchestra into smaller groupings (providing one explanation of the title, as in "chamber" music).

Thick, sustained strings or brass provide a firm bed for ticking percussion, skirling woodwind figuration or pizzicato strings. Trumpets intermittently top out the textures to powerful effect. In the third movement, a passage in rhythmic unison unravels and disappears with a suddenness that is quite dramatic.

There's direct emotion, also, in the lyrical fourth movement, which provides this 14-minute work's heart. Maybe the fifth movement – a fast and furious throwaway ending with brass glissandi – is a bit glib. But In Camera is expertly shaped as well as competently orchestrated, and it's much stronger than the "schoolboy modernism without tears" that some think is all such British twenty- and, indeed, thirtysomethings are capable of these days. I suspect that a Prom commission can't be far away.

Korngold's Violin Concerto was, rather bizarrely, given its second performance in the Barbican within a week; Leonidas Kavakos responded intelligently to its lyricism and lusciousness without becoming overindulgent. Slatkin's account of Sibelius's Second Symphony had real sinew and tension.

Keith Potter

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