Rossetti grows on you

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The Independent Culture
BCMG / Trestle QEH, London Smith Quartet ICA, London Contemporary music never gets an audience, you say? You weren't at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the London premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis's Goblin Market. Hopeful punters queued for returns, and the lucky ones who got in gave a generous ovation. A sea-chan ge? Not really. What drew the crowds was Trestle Theatre, the mask-and-mime troupe which is touring its staging of Goblin Market in a double-bill with Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale. Trestle, workinghere with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), has a loyal following for its "popular mask theatre", and it's a fair bet most of the audience wouldn't mind whether it was doing Kern or Kernis.

That isn't to imply a lack of discrimination, only that new music gets an audience when another idiom - usually dance - is involved. In the programme Kernis wrote that he envisioned no specific theatrical context for Goblin Market, which here consisted of Barry Wilsher's amplified reading of Christina Rossetti's eponymous poem; a performance by BCMG (conducted by Daniel Harding) of Kernis's music, functioning as a kind of soundtrack; and Trestle's staging, devised under the direction of Tony Wilsher andJoff Chafer.

Rossetti's poem depicts the friendship between two women, which is destroyed when they sample the goblins' fruity delights. The sisterly relationship, built on a solid foundation of sexual disgust, hardly qualifies as pre-feminist, but the poem's sometimes clippety-clop rhythms neatly offset the disturbing images. Trestle locates the work in a contemporary dystopia where the women are squatters hoping to domesticate a fruit-and-veg warehouse haunted by goblin barrow-boys: the production moves easily bet ween contemporary minutiae and profound archetypes.

So eye-catching was the staging - and, where I sat, so loud the amplified reading - that it was difficult to separate the music from other spectacular elements, which is as it should be. Kernis's refined sense of theatricality finds no contradiction in placing 19th-century gestures beside the hyperventilating modernity of jazz and film scores. Screeching winds, battering percussion, fulsome strings (a 13-piece ensemble) support, sometimes undercut, rarely illustrate Rossetti's text: Goblin Market probeddeeper than Trestle's staging of The Soldier's Tale, which only intermittently - but then superbly - caught the whiff of Stravinsky's diabolism.

Earlier in the week, the final concert in the final series of Adrian Jack's "New MusICA" series at the Institute of Contemporary Arts ended not with a whimper but with a barely audible sigh, as the Smith Quartet played a movement from Philip Glass's Company. Despite the moments of tentativeness, the Smiths played well, but it felt wrong that no one - not the players, not the ICA administration, not the programme - should acknowledge the demise of this innovative and illuminating series.

n Trestle Theatre are tonight at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester (0533 554854), Sunday: Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham (021-236 3889)