The gulf between them Sound and fury

MUSIC; CBSO / Hugh Wolff Birmingham
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Two debuts in one evening isn't bad going, this late in the season. But on Thursday at Symphony Hall not only was there the European premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis's Second Symphony, but the City of Birmingham Youth Chorus, CBSO's answer to inner-city choral deprivation, also had its first outing. Simplicity of outline was the order of the evening, with a new work of intentionally direct cut followed by the 20th century's least subtle choral war-horse.

The best that can be said of the cacophonous close of Kernis's symphony - complete with ear muffs for the percussionists - is that it made the start of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana seem positively muted. The older members of the (largely female) youth chorus joined in with the adults of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus. It seemed a shame that the junior members' only look-in was for the brief "Amor volat undique" and a couple of verses of "Tempus est iocundum"; nor was it surprising that, when the youngsters did get to sing, they sounded barely warmed up and more than a little raw of voice. No one can wish this splendid enterprise anything but the greatest success; choral singing is one of the greatest joys of youth - but is a fragment of repetitious, over-assertive Orff the best start?

As it is, the senior chorus, too, sounded ill at ease. These triumphant veterans of so much virtuoso repertoire seemed almost defeated at times by Orff's beery primitivism, with some spongy entries and uncharacteristically undernourished tone in all registers. The conductor, Hugh Wolff, bounded about the platform showing every sign of passionate involvement with the piece, without however preventing some poor coordination between choir and orchestra.

Kernis's Symphony is a product of his reaction to the Gulf War, a personal "loss of innocence". While it is not explicitly programmatic, its outer movements register his shock and horror. The first, "Alarm", is full of flailing action, calling to mind the similarly violent openings of Vaughan Williams's Fourth and Sixth Symphonies, though with far less contrasting material. Some bigger gestures seemed to be materialising towards the end, but too late to save the movement from feeling merely frantic.

The lyrical middle movement showed that Kernis's forte, as with many other composers of his generation, is slow music. Exquisite chords and ethereally orchestrated passage work generated a pervasive stillness occasionally interrupted by forceful, seemingly irrational outbursts. The finale, "Barricade", provided the most graphic evocation of conflict: inspired by the erroneous bombing of an inhabited building that turned out not to be a military target, it began with a blast of anger, but showed little sense of what to do with it or even how to deal with it. The final bars, with their deafening crescendo, summed up the main thrust of the work: plenty of orchestral force majeure but little attempt to look beyond or behind the immediacy of the image.

Jan Smaczny