SCARPIA / Feeding on the food of love: Nicholas Williams finds a selection of London concerts feeding the base appetites as well as the elevated ones

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WINE AND PASTA alternated with Haydn trios at the Conway Hall. At Christchurch Spitalfields, Hawksmoor's elegant interior was filled with the vibrant sounds of drums and tuned percussion from Ensemble Bash. Over at the ICA, already famous for its bar-restaurant facilities, the arts' additive was audio-visual, with Steven Peppin's conceptual concourse video show, Laundromat Pictures, thrown in for good measure.

The secret, it seems, is in the presentation. Music promoters, faced with another year's hard slog to win funding and communicate their enthusiasms, have gone all out to ply their audiences with food and drink. Though purists may object, the temptation is nothing new: edible and aural consumption have co-existed for even longer than music has been the food of love. Besides, eating at the Chamber Music Company's three-week 'Summer Solstice' festival at Red Lion Square was kept strictly to the intervals. Drinking continued through the recitals, but only as an aid to concentration on an artistic menu that contained unusual repertoire stretching from Robert Volkmann to John Tavener.

That's been the other, more serious strand of the policy: challenging the audience's taste by blending the accustomed with the unfamiliar. Both the ICA's Platform 3 series and the Chamber Music Company have emphasised the need to appreciate radically different styles as complementary; the moral tone of this search for common ground is self-evident. Commercially, it also reflects the obligation to draw in maximum numbers from a finite, specialised group of enthusiasts. Persuading them to leave their separate enclosures to rediscover music-as- sharing is only part of the call. The real message is that such gestures can also be meaningful.

Not all of Platform 3's events have succeeded in getting this across. Friday evening's concerts, however, were perfectly linked for the shedding of some mutual light. Works for piano and live electronics given by the Montague / Mead Piano Plus attracted a lively following that returned, after half-time, to hear the Duke Quartet in George Crumb's classic Black Angels.

Maybe it was the similar, undoctrinaire attitudes to sound that encouraged them to remain; in particular the rich layers of timbre in Michael Clark's Epicycle matching, from an earlier period, Crumb's refined, metaphysical ear for sonority. Make what you will of the ritual counting, the symbolism and arcana of this work; in the hushed Schubert quotations and passages for glass harmonica there's an acoustic magic that's memorable far beyond any imitation.

The atmosphere at the Conway Hall was of extended family party, with the same faces returning on successive weekends for a full house at the three concerts, held in a mood of relaxed celebration. Modern British, including last Saturday a John Woolrich premiere, gained admission under the banner of a cheerful eclecticism, rubbing shoulders with a Brahms Piano Trio and a Parisian Gypsy group, Bratsch.

A succession of musical manoeuvres over an obsessive ground bass, Woolrich's grim little tale of thwarted lust was yet another confirmation of his powers; a talent that has major potential for the stage if Marchen, his piece for Ensemble Bash, is anything to go by. A mini-masterpiece of theatrical timing, it occupied the place of scherzo at the group's Spitalfields Festival appearance on Tuesday. Other pieces - David Osbon's ear-splitting Reconstruction and Minoru Miki's Marimba Spiritual - were effective showpieces. But the musical substance was Robert Keeley's Mariposas de Plata ('Silver Butterflies'), a substantial fantasy-sonata that created a refreshing uncliched sound world for marimbas and vibraphones, with an equally impressive long-range control of harmonic energy. This was a straight line of a piece, its inbuilt drive and purpose moving in a highly personal way to denouement and coda with an inevitability that was never a foregone conclusion.

The audience was disappointingly small. By contrast, the LSO appeared on Thursday to a packed Barbican, their secret being the oldest temptation of all: star names. No, not Erwartung, nor even Pierre Boulez, but Jessye Norman, whose reading of Schoenberg's expressionist monodrama was preceded by a Debussy Jeux of typically cool precision. Norman's standing ovation from the capacity audience was predictable, if deserved. Perhaps sufficient food and drink would have attracted some of her admirers to smaller, alternative venues like the ICA.