Prom Six: BBC SO/Slatkin/Thibaudet, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The season-long East-West theme made its first appearance with a novelty: the first-ever commission for the Proms by the BBC World Service. Usually the Prom organisers treat music they consider exotic by showing how thoroughly it has been colonised by the Western classical tradition. This year is no exception, even though the reality - and quite possibly the future of the art - is more like a takeover the other way round: think of the reinventions by Tan Dun. At least he will feature, and so does Zhou Long, whose commission The Immortal had its premiere on Tuesday from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

The season-long East-West theme made its first appearance with a novelty: the first-ever commission for the Proms by the BBC World Service. Usually the Prom organisers treat music they consider exotic by showing how thoroughly it has been colonised by the Western classical tradition. This year is no exception, even though the reality - and quite possibly the future of the art - is more like a takeover the other way round: think of the reinventions by Tan Dun. At least he will feature, and so does Zhou Long, whose commission The Immortal had its premiere on Tuesday from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

Zhou, like Tan, experienced the Cultural Revolution in his teens, studied in his twenties, and took off to the United States in his thirties. His music is content to occupy Western forms while finding ingenious and often thrilling ways to make the instruments sound Chinese and to work with ideas and motives of a Chinese character. The Immortal began with an repeated chord, like the percussion in Beijing Opera, and the material soon became inflected with Zhou's trademark slides between pitches.

The piece rose to two confrontational climaxes and then faded, as though relieved at survival but uncertain of the future. To listeners, the uncertain part in this piece is the reliance on a Western style rooted in the 1970s, which gives it a rather dated, atonal character. Within it, though, the invention is bright and fresh.

Two contrasting single-movement epics from the Romantic era made up the rest of the programme. The concise one, Liszt's Second Piano Concerto, had, from soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the kind of delicacy, momentum and quick thinking that makes the music feel like the precursor of Saint-Saens that, indeed, it is: the Frenchman took further many of Liszt's ways of holding together a large, complex span of music, especially in matters of pacing and rhythm. While Thibaudet allowed himself some thunderous moments, particularly early on, it was brilliance and nimble cohesion that dominated.

No such luck with the Alpine Symphony, by Richard Strauss. This would-be symbolic account of climbing a mountain has its great moments, such as the gloomy opening and close, and the breathtaking arrival at the summit, but there aren't enough to add up to more than the sum.

There was some superb brass, and Slatkin achieved a notably good balance with the organ, but the piece was lacking drama and panache, its strings short of intensity. Still, some fun with the effects, though, as hunting horns rang out from the gallery, followed by cowbells. At the end, the chirp of mobile phones rang out, just like in real mountaineering.

Proms end 11 September. Prom six available online until today (020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms)

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