Proms CRITICAL BAND / JAMES WOOD Royal Albert Hall, London

'What was billed as "timbila music from Mozambique" brought out the strange sight of eight Dutchmen, one Englishman and an African'
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The Independent Culture
Africa and the Hilliard Ensemble filled the arena for Monday's intensely concentrated Prom. Rhythm was the theme, from medieval motets to modern drumming. Really, though, this was a portrait concert of James Wood: composer, conductor, inventor, programmer, and unheard percussionist. And while the first half made for a crescendo of excitement pure and simple, it was still about his enthusiasms and influences.

Small groups held the stage to the interval - you don't have to think orchestral to send thrills round the hall. With four and five singers, the Hilliards' repertoire of Busnois and Machaut floated across with perfect clarity and a rich acoustic halo - it's music that is fantastically hard to pitch and balance, yet they subsumed its intricacies with untiring focus. Enter, then, three of the Hague Percussion Group with African drums for Xenakis's Okho, which set a few echoes flying but came across with typical force and dynamism - this much-misunderstood composer's mathematical intricacies kept out of earshot where they belong, just like Busnois.

What was billed as "timbila music from Mozambique" brought out the strange sight of eight Dutchmen, one Englishman, and an African - Venancio Mbande, who took the lead and rightly had a solo bow. Given the music's subtle drive and ringing overtones, the percussionists sounded wonderful in this space, though their singing was pretty awful. Perish the thought that it looked like an education project. When real African music has never appeared in the Proms, it was a rum way to start, though it had the audience hungry for more.

Instead, they got a whole new concert after the interval, as Wood's Critical Band assembled to play his BBC commission, Two men meet, each presuming the other to be from a distant planet, with American guest soloist Steven Schick playing another spectacular percussive array. Mostly of Wood's own devising, this included sonorous timber-based drums and a set of microxyls - definitely maxi, like xylophones with a spread of microtonal keys between the usual notes. Clearly structured and boldly scored, the music headed firmly into possibilities previously unimagined and kept up a heady pace.

The hand-picked group of players brought it off with some panache. Even so, it didn't have the sheer oomph that some of Wood's vocal pieces have shown. Messiaen's Couleurs de la Cite Celeste (with Andrew Ball a punchy solo pianist) showed why. Equally intricate and mouldbreaking, it also dares to be naive: splashes of colour, chorales, melodies, bring perspective and directness to the complexity.

This half put the dampers on earlier excitement just enough to stop it being the most authentically contemporary Prom of the season. Old and new, African and Western, it nearly got there. But the honour had gone to a late-night Prom a month before, billed as being from what the BBC still chooses to call the "Far East". You would never guess from the marginal presentation, but it turned out to be entirely about the encounter of traditional and classical music with the modern world - with America a constant presence in its Thai and Chinese sessions and a sophisticated packaging of Korean drumming with dance.

Why couldn't the Proms give these important international currents prime time? However brief the timbila session, at least it went on mid-evening, and look at the response. They'd hardly have all turned out for Critical Band.