Gruppen, Blackheath Halls, London

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The Independent Culture

So what's this about the music of the post-war European avant-garde being all washed up?

So what's this about the music of the post-war European avant-garde being all washed up? The generation of Pierre Boulez has often been lambasted as irrelevant, especially to those now of music college age.

So it's encouraging to report the Royal Academy of Music's extensive participation in the South Bank Centre's recent festival devoted to Luciano Berio, and to read of the impressive-sounding new Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen's University, Belfast, complete with Karlheinz Stockhausen in attendance.

And over at Blackheath Halls, in south London, something truly extraordinary took place. This performance of Gruppen, Stockhausen's Fifties classic for three spatially separated orchestras, featured students from all four London music colleges: the Guildhall School, the Royal Academy, the Royal College and Trinity College of Music.

Most surprising of all, the collaborating students were not only the musicians here - Gruppen has, after all, been played in London by college musicians before, at the RCM. They also organised the entire concert (with Louise Hawker as orchestral manager), which preceded the account of the Stockhausen itself with more familiar fare for large groups of brass (and percussion), woodwinds and strings in turn. Set in motion by the four students' unions, with some help from their elders in these institutions (including the conductor Edwin Roxburgh, a Gruppen veteran), the whole thing was conceived as an event that "would highlight our strengths as musicians and be a positive and creative gesture in the face of current challenges facing music conservatoires". All proceeds from this sell-out evening went to the charity Arts & Kids.

The first half was, admittedly, a somewhat queasy mix. Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man (conducted by Tim Henty from the RCM, who seems to have suggested the idea of doing Gruppen) opened proceedings, literally with a bang, from the rear of the auditorium. Mozart's Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments, K361, proved a bit ambitious for Dominic Grier of the RAM and his musicians, but improved as they all relaxed. Andrew Morley, of TCM, had some strong string players for Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, though he had trouble holding this piece's episodic structure together.

But the point of the evening was the account of Gruppen itself, under all these three conductors. And this was not only exciting, as volleys of brass and percussion ricocheted around the audience from orchestras to front, left and right, it had also made brilliant use of the mere six hours of rehearsal available to produce playing of a precision that must be extraordinarily difficult in such spatially separated circumstances.

One thing this rare live outing of Gruppen proved is what a lyrical and movingly musical piece it also is, as well as providing the sheer joy of coming together to make a terrific noise. A heartwarming evening.

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