John Cage Uncaged, Barbican, London

Put the BBC Symphony Orchestra's annual Composer Weekend with the still-radical John Cage, and what do you get? Cage's vision of the usual symphonic line-up as a seedbed for utopian visions sits rather awkwardly with the realities of modern orchestral life.

One of the BBC's answers to this question was to substitute smaller groups and those amateur and young musicians who can rise to the challenge of the composer's encouragement of an inventive spirit. Thus it was that for many others besides the more than 300 musicians who took part, the two performances of Cage's Musicircus proved the highlight of the weekend.

Supervised by Stephen Montague, this joyous gathering, from the BBC Symphony Chorus to ex-Led Zeppelin bass guitarist John Paul Jones, delightfully filled every nook and cranny of the Barbican Centre's foyers.

Thus, too, the overnight performance of Satie's Vexations from a roster of solo pianists amid the palms of the Barbican's conservatory. If I had to pick out one of the compelling performances of music by Earle Brown, Henry Cowell, Morton Feldman and others besides Cage himself, it would be the Duke Quartet's beautiful interpretations of Cage's string quartets.

But what of the BBC SO's own contributions? A lot of this consisted of pieces by other composers, too, programmed to put Cage in his, chiefly American, context. When this combined with a high level of performance, as in a searing account of Varese's Ameriques, under David Porcelijn, the weekend offered experiences to treasure. When recourse was had to populist Americana, as with most of the opening concert under Lawrence Foster, the results were less engaging. And unnecessarily compromising here. For one of the chief glories of John Cage Uncaged was the proof it provided that there is a large audience out there, not only for the fun-for-all-the-family of Musicircus, but also for such difficult endeavours as Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis.

One of the weekend's consistently large crowds engaged with a concentration rarely experienced in the concert hall these days to the pianist John Tilbury's engrossed rendition of Winter Music and the furtive eruptions of Sound Intermedia's Cartridge Music. But while these were going on simultaneously with Atlas, some members of the orchestra, at least, failed in their professional duty to offer a paying public an honest account of what Cage had asked for in this work; one violinist "corpsed" unforgivably.

As for the orchestral account of 4'33" that garnered so much publicity, Lawrence Foster lost my confidence in his inclination to take seriously a work that the orchestra this time, it has to be said, responded to with stoic respect, when he theatrically mopped his brow after the first movement.

My gratitude to the BBC for mounting such a feast rivals that of the several American visitors who come to London for such events because they simply never get them at home. Yet I couldn't help regretting that a more consistently radical approach had not been taken to the programming; not only out of respect to Cage's own consistent daring, but because it would have also made a much better start on encouraging the corporation's own prime band to consider Cage's deconstruction of the orchestra as the positive influence that its audience clearly already understands it to be.

Comments