That was then. This is now?

MUSIC British Music Now Barbican, London
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The Independent Culture
Last weekend's Barbican concert series shared between the Nash Ensemble and the BBC Symphony Orchestra seemed uncertain of its title. It was originally advertised as "British Music Now", but the programme book had the title "Talking Music" in larger letters and invited us, after the Sunday concert, to join the composers to talk about the music and tell them what we felt was important in British music now. There were also short on-stage discussions between the composers and Stephen Plaistow in the middle of each concert.

Only five composers - four high-profile figures and one relative newcomer - were featured. Most of the pieces by Robin Holloway, Colin Matthews, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Oliver Knussen were quite old, and one might well ask what all the fuss was about. "Olly Knussen and Friends" is scarcely a new concept in programme-building. Only the youngest composer, Julian Anderson, whose music shared the programme on Saturday with that of Colin Matthews, was represented by pieces which, if not exactly new, were at least newsworthy, for Anderson, who is now in his late twenties, has only emerged from an assiduous apprenticeship in the past two years.

Some composers work out the same preoccupations in a whole series of pieces - rather like market-wise painters - and then change them quite dramatically. But each piece of Anderson's seems quite different from its neighbours, even if The Bearded Lady, heard on Saturday in a version for clarinet and piano, begins with a resounding echo of Stravinsky, like the ending of Anderson's Khorovod, which the London Sinfonietta played in London earlier this season.

The origin and chronology of Anderson's pieces takes some disentangling. The composer himself said that his orchestral diptych, Dark Night, now renamed Parades-Pavillons en l'air, uses ideas dating back five or six years. The recent revision was certainly worthwhile, for the orchestral writing is assured, sumptuous and very enjoyable to listen to, quite apart from the fact that this is Anderson's first work for such large forces and, in origin, his first acknowledged piece altogether.

Anderson's Seadrift for soprano, flute, clarinet and piano sets the same poem by Walt Whitman as Delius's masterpiece. With just a hint of disingenuous arrogance, Anderson claims he didn't bother to get to know Delius's music because the poem so fascinated him on its own merits.

He certainly succeeded in making of it something completely different, with a brittle, fractured Prelude, an energetic second movement in which clarinet and flute compete in a neck-to-neck race for audibility, and a slow final lament, less memorable than the rest. Rosemary Hardy sang it brightly, with flautist Philippa Davies, clarinettist Michael Collins and pianist Andrew Ball all doing sterling stuff.

Colin Matthews was also represented by his first acknowledged orchestral piece, Fourth Sonata, now more than 20 years old, in which Oliver Knussen conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A conservative listener might call it the acceptable face of minimalism, because it takes the kind of short repeated figures in Terry Riley and Steve Reich's music and melds them in a rich orchestral build-up, ending in a sunset glow, replete with soupy horns, like some high-class film score.

Matthews is certainly a felicitous musician, if no great original, and his Oboe Quartet of 1981, played by Gareth Hulse and members of the Nash Ensemble, gives the strings elegantly wrought, rapid calligraphic lines while the oboe dots the i's. A neat, shapely composition comfortable with its 10-minute duration. His Fuga for eight players, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, is a rushing scherzo whose impressive sense of purpose is dissipated by over-extension and the corny idea of archaic contrasted sections based on 16th- century music.

The other Matthews work in an over-long and indigestible programme was his Palinode for solo cello, played by Christopher van Kampen. It was described in the programme book as "a study in slow tempo" and that's just about all it amounted to.

Adrian Jack