Some concerts promise so much. With a title as wilfully enigmatic as "400 years of modern music", my expectations for Saturday night's concert at the QEH were high. Just what could such a title mean? Was this to be some revelatory exploration of music that has always sounded "modern", regardless of period? Was I expecting the musical equivalent of Steven Pimlott's shatteringly timeless production of Hamlet? I was trying, in anticipation, to pinpoint those works – Bach's Art of Fugue, Beethoven's "Grosse Fuge", a wayward Scarlatti keyboard sonata – to which the innocent ear might struggle for the era of writing while the professional, if not innocent, might merely gawp.
Sadly, this concert turned out to have no such ambitions, but rather, ambition of an entirely different nature, and ill-conceived at that. In a scant hour, the goal was to present "a musical dialogue between the history of man's evolution through classical music and the foundations of popular culture". Some task! Not up to it were pianists Marcelo Bratke and Marcela Roggeri, and a group of young to very young children, the Meninos do Morumbi, flown in from far-off Brazil.
The Meninos do Morumbi is a noble idea. It's a percussion ensemble of up to 400 children, offering music as an alternative to drugs and delinquency. Only 11 turned up on Saturday. Quite why they were playing with and alongside two pianists was not at all easy to fathom, and why they performed so little, equally mysterious.
The programme – played without break and largely without applause in Stygian gloom – began with a tantalising fragment of Robin Holloway's deconstruction for two pianos of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Gilded Goldenberg is a massive work of over two hours. Its abrupt end (after perhaps seven minutes) seemed wilfully arbitrary, signalled by a lone drummer, whose solemn beats segued into Mozart's great C minor fugue, K426. The pattern of Bratke and Roggeri's playing became apparent: cool and remote; little interchange; little characterisation; little dynamic contrast; little heed to the music's drama; lousy ensemble.
Schubert's F minor "Fantasia", heralded in by a very young "tambouriniste"(!), fared even worse. How can so poignant a piece lack colour, pathos and surprise? And what is gained by drummers crashing into the end, merely to segue into Gershwin's 3 Preludes? Four pieces of Ernesto Nazareth had the percussionists "playing along". At least the tambouriniste – the star of the evening – seemed to be having a good time: she was the only one to smile. And in Milhaud's "Brazileria" from Scaramouche, she had a winning one-finger spin on her tambourine. But as an exercise "culminating in a fusion of ideas and traditions", forget it.