With its Georgian weaver's houses, market buildings, curious residents and Asian tailors, Spitalfields is one of village London's last stands. Its centrepiece is Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church, one of Britain's greatest churches. It was neglected until 20 years ago, when the festival was set up to make some money for the restoration. That, of course, was a naive assumption: music festivals do not make money. But the restoration is happening, slowly; and meanwhile, Hawksmoor's huge, empty interior makes the most atmospheric concert venue in London, supervised by the composer Judith Weir, who is Spitalfields's Artistic Director and a programme- devisor of formidable ingenuity.
For the opening night, she drew together the festival's two long-standing repertory interests - contemporary and baroque - in a concert that featured old and new responses to the biblical Passion narrative. The performers, the period band Florilegium, were not on their best form, using very small forces - four voices doubling as soloists and chorus, single strings, no conductor - in Bach's Easter Oratorio. Apart from fine, incisive flute accompaniments by Ashley Solomon, it wasn't memorable.
But the interest here came with a new work: Matthew King's Gethsemane, which is the first (50-minute) half of an envisaged two-part Easter oratorio, commissioned by Spitalfields and a considerable curiosity. Matthew King is a composer I first encountered at Opera Lab (the experimental summer school for composers and librettists which runs every year in Kent), writing music of distinctive beauty with disarming theatre-sense. Gethsemane is just that, setting the composer's own adaptation of the Passion texts (up to Peter's Denial) for four voices and period instruments: mostly strings and keyboard (harpsichord doubling chamber organ), with sparing recourse to woodwind and brass. The musical language is tonal, with such wide-ranging stylistic references that it transcends eclecticism and becomes purely the voice of its composer. Whether it gets much advantage from the period instruments (or whether these particular ones had been given enough preparation time) I'm not sure; and it overestimates the emotional effectiveness of some moments, when the textures are extremely thin. But there's an innocence about the music which is honest, heartfelt, full of what a German would call "ear-worms": ideas that dig deep into the listener's mind. I liked it. And despite a tendency to bleat through long notes, I liked the baritone of Thomas Guthrie who took the expansive role of Jesus in his stride. Well sung, with personality.
A few tube stops from Spitalfields, the Covent Garden Festival is also running at the moment: nothing to do with the Royal Opera (for which it should be grateful), but a lively, off-the-wall event that plants music- theatre in the sort of venues music-theatre audiences scarcely know about - like churches - and keeps its patrons awake through long nights of Handel by seating them on hard pews. I'm pleased to say that this year's operas are mostly scheduled into small-scale auditoria. And it was at the Cochrane Theatre, Holborn, that the festival premiered two new scores on Monday: winners of the Stephen Oliver Prize, which is given biennially for settings of libretti commissioned in advance from established writers.
In this case, the writers were AN Wilson and David Edgar, both distinguished. But Edgar's The Bridge proved to be a low-key conversation-piece with no allowance for the special demands that music makes of theatre. And though Wilson's Travellers was more interesting and more open to the possibilities of opera, it went awry, with an arcane plot that involved a policeman in long johns and a dog that turned into St Christopher.
Against that background, it was unsurprising that Tim Benjamin's score for The Bridge was dull, underscoring the flat, predictable text with flat, predictable music, horribly amplified. David Horne's score for Travellers was more inventive, texturally richer and rewarding, if a touch opaque. The Travellers set design was better too (James Orrow, a serious talent), with finer all-round performances from a cast who weren't miked, and accordingly didn't have to wear the head apparatus that made everyone in The Bridge look like singing telephonists. Matthew Hargreaves stood out as a baritone of style and promise.
One more festival, if you can take it: Bath. And personally, I can take whatever Bath provides, now it has bounced back from the anything-goes populism that dogged its programmes a few years ago to a healthy new life under Tim Joss, a director who maintains a broad base to the festival, but keeps the interest high across all disciplines. Last weekend there was a contemporary music focus, with string quartets like the Arditti and the Kronos. And at the same time, charismatic viola player Yuri Bashmet was in residence with "friends" (as such people are always called) who turned out to be a mixed bag of Russians, from the celebrated cellist Natalia Gutman to young players not long out of Petersburg Conservatory. Anyone who fancied a free trip to Britain, judging by the cowboy playing they delivered.
Most of it featured Bashmet himself, making a bigger sound than anyone around him, in chamber scores by Mozart, Brahms and Tchaikovsky which you don't often hear with the viola upfront. Mostly, it held together by the seat of its collective pants, absurdly unprepared, with rotten intonation. The redeeming factor was excitement: the roughness and disorder carried by those of Bashmet's "friends" who are obviously superlative musicians, even if they don't care to rehearse. It certainly mesmerised the audience at Bath who thrilled to the wrong notes and brutal attack. On balance, I wish I'd gone to the Arditti.
Empty wishes have been the stuff of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition over the past 10 years, as it has struggled to muster credibility in the ears of the world. Competitions are only as good as their competitors, and the standard of entry for Flick's has been depressing - even with the prospect of a job as Assistant to the LSO as part of the prize. But this year, things looked up. Tuesday's final at the Barbican had three good candidates, each with something to say for themselves, starting with an excitable Austrian, Christoph Campestrini, and a more reserved Brit, James Kelleher. But the emphatic winner - with some focused, idiomatic Mozart and a dazzlingly vibrant Elgar In the South - was Paul Mann: another Brit, whose technical command and personality were striking, and produced performances that felt "commanded" rather than just followed from the page. The LSO were in superb form, and looked pleased with the decision; which is just as well, since they'll be seeing lots of Mann over the next 12 months. I hope their audience sees something of him too. This one has genuine promise.
Spitalfields Festival, E1 (0171 377 1362), to 24 June.Reuse content