Classical musics: Sampling America

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Michael Tilson Thomas's New World Symphony Orchestra gives young musicians the chance to work with the best in the profession. But they are no rank beginners, as an ambitious programme of American classics, to be performed at the Barbican, demonstrates

Having commenced the musical side of its massive "Inventing America" season in fine style a couple of weekends back with John Adams's opera, Nixon in China, the Barbican's enterprising American Sampler concert line- up now gets underway with a visit this Tuesday from the appropriately named New World Symphony Orchestra. On the menu is more Adams, as well as classics by Ives and Barber.

For the young musicians of the New World Symphony, who are based in Miami Beach, playing this side of the Atlantic will indeed be a new world for them. Yet not so for their conductor. For him, the Barbican is home from home, for he is none other than Michael Tilson Thomas (right), former Principal Conductor of the LSO.

It was in 1986 that the ever youthful and dynamic Tilson Thomas still found time to inaugurate the New World set-up, which consists of an innovative three-year fellowship programme giving recent music graduates the chance to work with international conductors and soloists prior to launching their careers. The concept certainly appears to be working, for, since the orchestra's inaugural season 10 years ago, more than 300 aspiring musicians have successfully established themselves in professional musical life.

Yet there's no doubt that Tilson Thomas already believes his musicians are more than professional enough already, for he brings them to the Barbican with a highly testing and archetypally American programme. It's always somewhat surprising to think how early the American musical tone was being set by the pioneering Charles Ives, as demonstrated by his Three Places in New England. Ives began work on the score in 1903 - the same year that, elsewhere in New England, the Wright Brothers first became airborne. The three movements reflect Ives's deep-felt response to the sites he names in the titles: the St. Gaudens Monument in Boston Common, Putnan's Camp, Bedding, Connecticut; and the Houstatonic River at Stockbridge - a favourite haunt of the composer and his wife during the first years of their marriage.

More "spirit of place" is suggested in Samuel Barber's Knoxville; Summer of 1915, which draws its inspiration from the prose poem by James Agee. Barber's father was already dying when he began composing Knoxville, and Barber eventually dedicated it to his memory. The soprano soloist for Knoxville is Barbara Hendricks.

And this inviting New World Symphony Orchestra concert should certainly end in sumptuous style with John Adams's orchestral showpiece of 1985 - Harmonielehre. By then, perhaps already sick of being labelled a Minimalist, Adams demonstrates that he can certainly harmonise as well, as his title whimsically suggests. In the central panel of his triptych, entitled Amfortas's Wound, Adams even alludes to Wagner's Parsifal, at the same time as his probing score embraces a new and post-Wagnerian chromaticism, which would have important consequences for many of his subsequent compositions.

So, a fine young Stateside orchestra, a fine roster of indigenous pieces and a fine price, too, for all tickets to the American Sampler concerts cost a mere pounds 10!

Barbican Hall (0171-638 8891) 10 Feb, 7.30pm