Venus Blazing Tour, University of Warwick, Coventry

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The Independent Culture

Dear old Contemporary Music Network tours: not long ago they showcased challenging modern "classical" works.

Dear old Contemporary Music Network tours: not long ago they showcased challenging modern "classical" works. Not many turned up, but they were on the right lines. Nowadays the content is different - mercifully little "crossover", but some frontier jazz, forceful ethnic and cutting-edge near-pop, for which audiences do exist. Thus the Venus Blazing tour was a welcome throwback, though not for "new" audiences. Here we were in a university - scarcely an undergrad, no children, virtually all-white - us usual old fogeys willing to support the new.

Venus, of course, is Aphrodite or, as the composer Deirdre Gribbin (in some fascinating readings that were sparkier than the music) reminded us, Ishtar or Ashtoreth. The foam-born, the sky-bride, lead-melter, most beautiful of beings, gorgeous harbinger of the night sky. A piece about Venus by an already renowned thirtysomething Belfast-born composer with a top-notch orchestra: it boded well.

And then, yuk. The first half was fine. James MacMillan, not so much wild young Liberation Theology prophet as one of Britain's finest medieval craftsmen, evoked (on spoken tape) the things that move him most: Bronze Age relics, standing stones, timeless images of a primitive and pagan past. He served up his road to the isles - Iona, Islay (no whiff of whisky or a ceilidh) - in beautifully serene, and by turns forceful, writing. MacMillan may not score 100 per cent on the large canvas (though he often does), but with small ensemble - like this wonderfully evocative sextet in "The Road to Ardtalla" - he shows what brought him so soon to the fore. The piece, written in 1983, showed an old head on young musical shoulders. A MacMillan score is packed with event, surprise, dashed expectation and shock as surely as a Haydn symphony.

But it was Deirdre Gribbin's not-quite-new Violin Concerto that got top billing. The soloist - a super one - was Ernst Kovacic. But, alas, the work. Gribbin is a feisty, talented lass. Her reading was terrific, suggesting an actress. But an evocation of Venus? Pull the other one. Gribbin's website entry notes a 15 - not 35 - minute score: has this swelled? "Organic" maybe, but gripping it ain't. The band loyally wafted and murmured but was given little to do. Kovacic's surges - as Venus herself - charmed, teased and twiddled a motif or two. The lighting might be dubbed "atmosphere", but seemed more patronising twaddle, except for the red-white-green - Verdi's colours - that opened the MacMillan. Lou Stein's vaunted "direction" seemed nonentitous. Temperamental Venus may have shimmered, but less than mimimalist at times, her evening star scarcely rose. For mysterious celestiality give me a handful of kids and Maxwell Davies's Jupiter Landing any time. Venus Blazing felt like a case of the Foam Goddess's new clothes. A blazing candidate for non-event of the year.

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