Music: The Hecklers: they'll scream and scream until we're all sick

A LETTER in Classical Music magazine'scurrent issue describes the Independent as an organ of "profound left-wing bias": a claim that will surprise many at Canary Wharf, not least because it has nothing to do with where we stand on EMU or teenage contraception - such issues feature rarely, if at all, in Classical Music magazine. Instead it comes in the course of a long-running correspondence on the funding, encouragement and general health of British contemporary music. The writer, who I think could fairly be described as not profoundly left-wing, complains about the predominance of what he calls "obscene musical forms a la Birtwistle"; the thrust of his gripe is that we all - music critics, newspapers, the BBC, the Arts Council - support a closed establishment of avant-garde composers with minority appeal, leaving the tuneful, popular conservatives to fend as best they can.

Of course, it's a flawed argument. If the tuneful conservatives are so popular, they don't need support: they'll survive well enough in a commercial environment; many of them do just that, attracting exposure and incomes that their more challenging colleagues will never know. On the other hand, there is value in critical acknowledgement, and you can understand the bitterness felt by composers of quality - from Malcolm Arnold (celebrating his 75th birthday this year) to Howard Blake (whose new ballet Eva has just premiered in Sweden to genuine popular acclaim) - whose work has persistently been marginalised in Britain, simply because its language is not the language of the moment.

But the key word is quality. The composers who have been busiest in advertising their neglect in Classical Music have not been the best examples of their kind; I'm talking here about that small sub-cult of controversialists who call themselves The Hecklers. They are still with us, and still complain- ing that their work is ignored because of its neo-romantic hummability - when the truth is that it's ignored because it's bad. I have heard various pieces by The Hecklers, and none of them has been of sufficient interest, substance or technical competence to demand serious attention.

But this week I heard some conservative music that did demand attention: a large-scale, 40-minute score for orchestra and chorus called Mirror of Perfection, written by Richard Blackford for what looked like the entire forces of the Royal Ballet School, who premiered it at the Royal College of Music last Sunday. It sets the ecstatic texts of St Francis of Assisi in the original Italian and French (St Francis wrote in both), and no one could say it breaks any musical boundaries. The writing is eclectic, juxtaposing stately revisitations of Renaissance polyphony with bits of anglicised, Brittenesque passacaglia sequences and a touch of Walton when the tempo pushes forward (which it doesn't often enough, proving how hard it is to achieve real speed in choral music). But in no sense is it opportunistic. It comes from the heart, with integrity, and a technical assurance that firms up what might otherwise be loosely benign lyricism into something of stature and beauty. Above all, it was obviously good to sing and play, with just enough challenge in the writing to keep it within the capacity and interest of young amateurs. There's a crying need for this kind of "useful" music, and not enough composers of consequence around who seem willing or able to meet it - with all the simplification of language and directness of address that writing for amateurs entails. That's the criticism you could reasonably make of music now; and it's an issue that needs badly to be addressed in the wake of the Arts Council consultation document on new work, which has just been published. Called Striking a New Note, it is meant to provoke a public debate on the function and funding of contemporary music in Britain, with special reference to the opportunities that Lottery money could provide. Copies are obtainable from the Arts Council at 14 St Peter Street, London SW1 (price pounds 1), and responses are invited until 24 May. For anyone with a view to air or interest to defend, this is your chance.

Staying with new music, the UK Nordic Festival continued this week with a cool infusion of Icelandic opera. I Have Seen Someone by Karolina Eriksdottir had its British premiere at the Riverside Studios, conducted by that tireless champion of women composers Odaline de la Martinez; it proved to be an enigmatic piece about broken relationships, darkness and death. To that extent it was, I suppose, characterfully Nordic, but the dramaturgical drift was so vague - a poem set to music, rather than real theatre - that very little in the way of shape or contour survived to help the audience through it. At what point the central character actually died I couldn't say. Nor, frankly, did I care: none of the four roles on the stage meant very much. But they were sung with commitment by Niall Morris, Mark Oldfield, Sarah Leonard and Rebecca de Pont Davies; and if the writing failed them, it did better by the orchestra, which claimed the real interest throughout. Eriksdottir obviously has a keen ear for instrumental colour, and uses it to blend sonorities of subtlety and elegance. For this reason alone I Have Seen Someone was worth doing.

Welsh National Opera was at Covent Garden this week for its annual London visit, touring The Rake's Progress which has already featured on this page, and the new Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, which hasn't. The Cav & Pag is largely a vehicle for Dennis O'Neill, a tenor I always find conscientious rather than inspired, but he was at his Italianate best here with a full, clear sound that sets the vocal standard for the show. I should really say shows, because the director Elijah Moshinsky has made a point of severing, so far as possible, these Siamese twins of the opera repertory. His Cavalleria is conventionally veristic in the decorative manner of a William Russell Flint; the Pagliacci is less pretty but more interesting, relocated to the 1950s but living the life of the piece with a vengeance - especially in the Silvio/Nedda scene, which Jason Howard and Rosalind Sutherland (finalist in last year's Cardiff Singer competition and an actress of exhilarating spirit) bring off superbly. It's also worth mentioning that the baritone Tonio gets the last line - "la commedia e finita" - which he doesn't always: not, at least, since Caruso introduced the custom of claiming it for the tenor. Such is the pecking order of the lyric stage. The tenor gets the girl, the punchline, the applause, and all for an occasional top C. As the rep- resentative of a profoundly left-wing newspaper, I can only say there's something very wrong with such a values system.

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