Prom 6, Royal Albert Hall/Radio 3

Mad, bad - and strangely dull
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The Independent Culture

"Well, I liked the bits which sounded like Schumann," said a woman as we filed out of the Albert Hall after the European premiere of Christopher Rouse's Seeing in Wednesday's Prom. Never mind all those nasty dissonances, then; at least the extracts from Schumann's Piano Concerto proved pleasant and reassuring.

The 52-year-old American Rouse's work, completed in 1998, is a piano concerto too, written for Emanuel Ax, who played it here, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin. Its borrowings from the Schumann Concerto – which sometimes appear with all the clarity, and all the subtlety, of a blow on the head – are designed to reflect on "how... the mentally ill 'see' – not in the purely ocular sense, but rather in the psychological and spiritual sense", as the composer explains it; Schumann was incarcerated as a psychotic. A 1969 acid rock song, "Seeing", written by Skip Spence of the group Moby Grape in the early stages of schizophrenia, also entered the mix and gave Rouse his own title. So these dissonant distortions of familiar, or unfamiliar, music – sometimes recognisable, sometimes not – do, in fact, quickly become interpretable along very banal lines: tonal good, atonal distortion (derangement, indeed) bad – and here, presumably, mad.

For me, Seeing was a dismayingly dull half hour, enlivened though it was by Ax's persuasive playing. Rouse is a very capable orchestrator, but his more idiosyncratic timbral effects (trombonists playing glissandi into timpani skins was the most obvious) remain – even in the slow section, most successful of the four – merely fancy effects stuck on to a very traditional, not to say clichéd kind of discourse.

In New York these days, they call this kind of music "midtown": neither Modernist, like the uptowners used to be, nor vernacularly earthy, like the downtowners still sometimes are, but safe and, indeed, reassuring, even when dealing with psychosis. The sort of new music that the New York Philharmonic likes to play. I do hope that Slatkin will champion all kinds of American music during his tenure with the BBC.

Few complaints about the Mahler with which Slatkin surrounded the Rouse. It was odd to hear Britten's cut-price version of What the Wild Flowers Tell Me from the Third Symphony with the full band waiting in the green room. But both this and Mahler's Fifth Symphony received accounts which seemed not only notably well prepared, but vividly alert to nuance and overall pacing. I especially admired the sonorous, Viennese-style string playing; curiously, though, the famous Adagietto didn't really tug at the heart – at least not at mine.

I think we should turn my colleague Annette Morreau's complaint on Monday about Albert Hall drink prices into a campaign this year. £1.70 for a brand of orange juice which you can get for half that price in a pub is an unacceptable markup. Bring your own water for the moment, Prommers!

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