Prom 62

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The Independent Culture

Robert Saxton and James Wood, both 50 this year, are at that awkward age for composers: neither young nor yet venerable. The former has compounded that difficulty by joining the music faculty at Oxford University, long viewed as a repository for compositional has-beens.

Saxton had a high profile in the 1980s, but he has had nothing done at the Proms for 10 years. In the past decade - since his 1991 opera Caritas, based on Arnold Wesker - he has been refining his fastidious, ultimately tonally based but far from "easy-listening" manner, particularly in choral music.

And also stretching himself commendably, to judge from Five Motets, a BBC commission given its premiere by the Clerks' Group, directed by Edward Wickham, in a finely sung and played late-night Prom consisting, otherwise, of 15th- and 16th-century music in conjunction with His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts. They performed some of the music while clustered engagingly, and probably authentically, around a single lectern. Saxton's motets - alternating Latin Vulgate settings with poems in English by the composer himself - were, indeed, interleaved in performance with instrumental "In nomines" by Tye and Byrd.

The positioning of Saxton's new music in the "early music" context was apt, since he has produced responses to his Biblical yet eternally relevant themes of spiritual journeying that are remarkably free of anachronism. They are vividly etched in music for nine singers that is sometimes mellifluous and splendidly dissonant; sometimes spare, affecting and unafraid of simple consonance and drones; and, in the third motet, sprightly and joyous, with dangerous harmonic lurches recalling Tippett. Saxton has here rejuvenated himself.

Wood is also writing a religiously inspired opera, about St Hildegard of Bingen. I've long admired his bold stance and his skilful writing for voices and percussion. But Tongues of Fire - performed by the composer's vibrant New London Chamber Choir and members of the excellent Hungarian percussion group Amadinda under Wood's direction - seemed, for all its folk-inspired setting of Pentecostal texts, mainly in Spanish, underpinned by percussion including prominent oil drums, to be a surprisingly tired mix of second-hand materials.

It came at the end of another late-night concert that - while it made good the Proms' neglect of the late Iannis Xenakis with fiery accounts of two of his works, plus Cage's evergreen Third Construction - was allowed to run too late for many people to get home easily. Proms-planners: please think again about this for next year.

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