Prom 38: Silk Road Ensemble / London Sinfonietta, Royal Albert Hall, London

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Two wholly indulgent works filled the programme at the Albert Hall on Friday. The BBC Proms were strutting their thematic stuff with a vengeance: East/West met the Silk Road and Olivier Messiaen.

Two wholly indulgent works filled the programme at the Albert Hall on Friday. The BBC Proms were strutting their thematic stuff with a vengeance: East/West met the Silk Road and Olivier Messiaen.

Yo-Yo Ma's desire to widen horizons and embrace different cultures has taken him in many directions. Now, he has brought to London his Silk Road Ensemble, in a project that aims to "explore cultural exchanges along the old trade routes between China and the Mediterranean" - a route that is over 2,000 years old.

Bright Sheng, like Yo-Yo, is a Chinese American. But born in 1955, he suffered the China of the Cultural Revolution. Paradoxically, thanks to the once- operatic Madame Mao, Sheng was able to become an entertainer - it was either that or hard labour - and while confined to Qinghai on the Tibetan border, Sheng, a pianist, began absorbing musical influences from the various ethnic groups there. In 1977, Chinese universities reopened and a new generation of Chinese composers was born - Sheng, Tan Dun and Zhou Long. In 1998, Ma invited Sheng to become artistic adviser to the Silk Road Project, and soon after, Sheng (resident in the US since 1982) returned to the outback of his youth.

Over 100 hours of recordings later, and with a commission from the New York Philharmonic, Sheng's The Song and Dance of Tears was first performed in 2003. It is essentially a concerto grosso for large orchestra, pipa (a lute-like instrument), sheng (a mini pipe-organ sounding like an accordion), piano and cello.

Slick and articulate (and now Leonard Bernstein Professor of Music at the University of Michigan), Sheng, in his pre-Prom talk, decried the notion of fusion. One had high hopes. Alas. Virtuoso playing from the pipa player Wu Man and radiated enthusiasm from Ma could not disguise the thinness of ideas, the oddness of balance between "Western" and "Eastern" instruments (an often inaudible Sheng didn't help), and the sentimentality of the score. Affirmative action and political correctness dressed up as a cultural soup?

Messiaen's Turangalîla-symphonie, also commissioned by an American orchestra, the Boston Symphony, was first performed in 1949 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. Does this explain the high-octane exuberance dressed up as kitsch? Pierre Boulez described the massive 10-movement work as "brothel music", but there's no mistaking Messiaen's absolute control of astringency juxtaposed with slush. The pianist Paul Crossley dispatched the solo cadenzas with clout and sensitivity, but Cynthia Millar's ondes martenot remained mostly inaudible. David Robertson conducted the massively expanded, dazzling London Sinfonietta.

Booking: 020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms. Prom 38 online to Friday

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