Meltdown: London Sinfonietta/ Alsop, Royal Festival Hall, London

Bowie in the looking glass

Even before it started, David Bowie's curating of the 10th Meltdown festival was getting a bad press: too familiar this, too obscure that. So it was fitting to start by reviving two Nineties works that had an equally bad press almost before they were played. Philip Glass based his first and fourth symphonies on themes from the Low and Heroes albums on which Bowie and Brian Eno collaborated in the late Seventies. The idea sounded like returning a compliment, since the albums borrowed classical techniques including the minimalist styles that Glass and others used in their early days. It naturally upset two groups of people, the Bowie fans who thought Glass had dried up all the rock spirit, and the classical critics who couldn't stand anything Glass did.

Approaching this music as a Glass-watcher makes life a whole lot easier. For a start, Low sounds just like "normal" Glass. He has said that he wrote it to give a boost to the experimental record label that he was helping to run at the time, and that audience is very much the constituency he is addressing. Still, to hear it live now gives it a new context, since it turned out to be the start of a substantial symphonic line.

It's a very confident first symphony, not surprisingly since Glass had plenty of experience in extended orchestral writing. The music is very much his own at symphonic length. Only the middle movement, "Some Are", is a straightforward scherzo, complete with meltingly lyrical trio section, Schubert-style. The first and last grow in their own way, with blocks of characteristic Glass material alternating, displacing one another and proliferating. Unless you knew the Bowie allusions, you wouldn't notice. Instead, there is some notably fresh and light orchestration, a long slow build in the first movement to a single full-band statement at the end, and a sombre finale with more relaxed interludes, this last rather glum in impact but personable enough.

Heroes, a follow-up based on a follow-up, is more of a dance symphony. The six movements are more concise, varied and colourful, and the tunes often sound like quotes, dressed up as classical composers like to do when they are going to write a set of variations. Not that that's what happens: Glass uses direct, clear-cut forms, usually with a separate middle section, and the music is more about statement than development, at least until the bouncy "V2 Schneider" at the end. The result is like a sequence of short tone poems, at its strongest in the upbeat "Abdulmajid", which flirts with exoticism and never quite succumbs, the exploratory "Sense of Doubt", and the stark "Neukoln".

Lively and focused performances by an enlarged London Sinfonietta, conducted by Marin Alsop, drew the eclectic audience from a somewhat thoughtful initial response to a mood of some enthusiasm. Alsop, who seems to have joined the handful of trusted Glass interpreters, has now conducted all of his orchestral symphonies in London in six months. Time for her to have her head with the two vocal-orchestral works that followed them. One of Britain's choruses should have picked up the epic Symphony No 5 by now, and while No 6 is brand new, as soon as word gets around about its intense soprano setting of Allen Ginsberg's anti-nuclear "Plutonian Ode", by some way Glass's most powerful concert work, the demand will be there.

Meltdown continues at the South Bank Centre, London to 29 June (020-7960 4242 & www.sbc.org.uk)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor