London Sinfonietta, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Blazing new trails between East and West
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The Independent Culture

A late appendage to the Japan 2001 festival, Jo Kondo's opera Hagoromo reached the UK on Sunday in the more routine surroundings of a London Sinfonietta new-music concert. Kondo is a globalised campus composer who maintains a professorship in Tokyo and strong teaching and publishing links with the West. His music shows up every so often in London but it's a while since the spotlight fell on him.

A late appendage to the Japan 2001 festival, Jo Kondo's opera Hagoromo reached the UK on Sunday in the more routine surroundings of a London Sinfonietta new-music concert. Kondo is a globalised campus composer who maintains a professorship in Tokyo and strong teaching and publishing links with the West. His music shows up every so often in London but it's a while since the spotlight fell on him.

Composed in Kondo's mid-forties, Hagoromo is based on a Noh play and tells of a fisherman who finds a cloak of feathers and wants to keep it. The angel whose cloak it is shows up, unable to return to heaven without it. So the deal is that the angel dances for him, and for humanity in general, before vanishing into the sky over Mount Fuji. It's a subtle, simple tale of material renunciation and spiritual profit. Kondo respects its character with a score that also treads a polished middle way through the various minefields of contemporary classical music.

A flautist stood to one side, while a narrator and singer carried the characters' words from within the orchestra. Kondo's music appeared to proceed in quiet, steady chords, but in fact after a while you realised that the top line formed a melody that moved from instrument to instrument. Using the solo flute as part of this melodic chain helped to articulate the melody by making it move more actively through the performance space. As a result, the flautist (Sebastian Bell) made a more striking contribution than the voices – no fault of Tomoko Shiota's poised narration, nor of Teresa Shaw's elegant singing. It was just that the vocal line, rooted to one spot, was relatively conventional.

Meanwhile, the main action was danced by Alyssa Dodson in fluid, steady movementsmore fluent than stylised. With suavely prepared orchestral support conducted by Paul Zukofsky, the overall effect was calm and scrupulous, expressively constrained and slightly dull. It was quite possible to imagine a performance with more intensity and focus, such as the two vocal artists achieved in their final lines.

The Sinfonietta put it in a context that was not so much contrived as downright eccentric. Zukofsky chose to precede Hagoromo directly with Summer Night on the River by Delius, apparently because the languid atmosphere set the right tone. Since Kondo wrote a prelude of his own that did just that, the exercise was redundant, and had the reverse effect of making you listen to the Delius more quizzically than usual, encouraged by playing that was rather linear and unplayful.

The evening's first half certainly had novelty going for it: versions of Debussy and Ravel made by Percy Grainger from tuned percussion meant to sound like the Javanese gamelan that inspired the former, and the bells evoked by the latter.

Placed here because of "Eastern influences", they unfortunately evoked the old, exoticist view that all Asia is much the same. But as sound experiences, they were something else. Debussy's Pagodes worked better than Ravel's La vallée des cloches out of sheer excess: pianos played with fingers and drumsticks, marimbas, xylophones, celestes, harmoniums – only the latter sounding incurably odd, though the unison strings in the Ravel added a touch of Hong Kong film score. Grainger's pragmatic scoring isn't really much like a gamelan, but it is spectacular enough to suggest directions European composers have never taken, and still could.

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