There's nowt so queer as folk

MUSIC; Maxwell Davies premiere Lehman Center, Bronx
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The Independent Culture
Two years ago, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies famously threatened to emigrate in protest at an Arts Council plan to cut the funding of two London orchestras. The threat was averted, but the effect on his psyche has clearly outlasted the Council's climb-down. For, in a particularly moving passage of his newchoreographic poem, Beltane Fire (premiered earlier this month on the BBC Philharmonic's current US tour), the composer describes a world without music.

Inspired by the 17th-century strife between Orkney pagans and Protestants, the work's scenario echoes real-life incidents in which musical instruments were confiscated and burnt. As the peasants' crops wither and die without the music needed to bless the fields, Maxwell Davies has quiet, mildly dissonant strings over which an aimlessly woozy, lonely muted trombone solo unfolds. Though deftly underplayed and restrained, it's probably spine-chilling enough to convince the most hardened bureaucrat of the importance of government support for music.

Elsewhere, in last Friday's New York premiere, Beltane Fire emerged as a piece that balances Maxwell Davies's more serious symphonic manner and his lighter, more folk-influenced side with great ease and effect. Partly because of its directness, but mostly thanks to its often astonishingly original descriptiveness, the music seems to have a particularly clear narrative, and there's a richness of contrasts between the harmonically ambiguous string-writing and the small folk ensemble (fiddle, harp and drum) imbedded in the orchestra.

Conservative hymn-style tunes portray the Protestants, though, in a sly touch, Maxwell Davies gives their music less tonal stability than he does the more folky pagan music: the implication being that their religion is a contrivance of civilisation that's less in touch with elemental human needs than the supposedly inferior pagan faith.

The combination of folk influences and harmonic sophistication can recall Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, though Maxwell Davies has a stronger sense of fantasy, and a freer sense of liberation from any tonic chord. Nothing is stated baldly: as so often, Maxwell Davies prods the ear on by setting up a pattern -melodic, harmonic or rhythmic - and then drops it almost as soon as it's established.

Surprises abound. The folk group, of course, has predictable charm and purity, but the music of a sword-dance, for example, imaginatively centres upon celesta and harp - not the sort of dramatic instruments associated with sharp blades - while the big pas de deux is more of an intense soul- probing among the leading characters than some flight of romantic fantasy. I can't imagine any reputable choreographer not wanting to have a go at it.

n The `Beltane Fire' can be heard tonight at 7.30pm on Radio 3

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