Prom 20: BBC Philharmonic / Gruber

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The Independent Culture

The Viennese in classical music are like the British in world politics: once they ruled the world, now they have to fit in, and the population hasn't noticed. You can understand why the city takes pride in its history. It hosted everybody who was anybody in German-speaking Europe, from Mozart to Mahler. But still to be contemplating the local navel while most of the Continent's composers have learnt to look outwards - that's starting to look quaint.

Consider HK Gruber, who conducted the BBC Philharmonic in the UK premiere of his Dancing in the Dark. Twenty years ago his quirky, theatrical pieces such as Frankenstein!! seemed to be shaking up the old tradition. Now they sound more like a shake-down. True, the title is a passing nod to Fred Astaire, and so are the rhythms of one short episode. But Peter Maxwell Davies was deconstructing foxtrots in the 1960s. Otherwise, the piece worked with a language that honoured and alluded to Mahler and Berg, and a soundscape steeped in Bruckner-like echoes.

The first, more interesting of its two parts built up a slow, quiet and complex melodic line around quick chord sequences, with a steady tread developing beneath - that's the foxtrot bit - until it seized up on a sustained chord while a box was ominously thrashed with brushes. In the second part, five minutes of loud, atonal, moderately fast music evaporated into Mahlerian melody again. The clamour returned, thickening to a sustained scream on violins. Performed with energy, the piece had the character of clinging on to old support systems in the face of mounting despair.

Vassily Sinaisky, the orchestra's principal guest conductor, took over for two Russian standards. Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No 3, with Nelson Goerner, went at a spectacular pace that found the soloist in his element, offering a playful lightness of touch rather than expressive range. Surging movement was a feature of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 5, in a performance that characterised its themes strongly and played the slow movement like a furtive operatic love scene.

The following Late Junction Prom, far from showcasing Radio 3's diet of assorted music from medieval to modern, was, in fact, the use of a brand name to sell something else. It was really a world music night with the accent on fusion, featuring too much from Europe and nothing from Asia. The links worked badly, with extended DJ sets - between sometimes short acts - and MCs who struggled with the artists' names. On the radio it was worse, with interminable interviews filling the gaps.

Mysteriously, the BBC sold Manecas Costa from Guinea-Bissau as a guitarist, as it's his mellow voice and gently updated African songs that give him distinction. There was no miscasting with the flamboyant Macedonian brass of Kocani Orkestar or the ska-inflected Jazz Jamaica All Stars, but some others came from that pool of overrated acts the world-music industry gets away with.

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