Review: Music with comic strip timing: BBC Symphony Orchestra Royal Festival Hall

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BBC Symphony Orchestra

Royal Festival Hall

Innocence, corruption and comic-strip-style fantasy formed the thematic backbone of Tuesday night's concert, where Enrique Diemecke conducted an all-American programme of Bernstein, Barber and Michael Daugherty. Bernstein's music for Elia Kazan's cinematic masterpiece On the Waterfront ranks with Gone with the Wind and Ivan the Terrible as being one of the greatest film scores ever composed, and the Suite extracted from it uses some - but by no means all - of its best material. The title sequence is dominated by thundering drums and although Martin Robertson's saxophone swung mellifluously above them, Diemecke's sluggish tempo rather tamed the action. The love music was better, the fight sequence better still, and when the battered docklands hero Terry Malone trod his painful "return to work", Bernstein took his cue from Copland's Billy the Kid and Diemecke marked the reference with maximum grandeur. Derivative or not, On the Waterfront is a wonderful score, though I'd hesitate to rate it higher than Samuel Barber's touching evocation of his Knoxville childhood. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 sets James Agee's prose-poem with the word-painting skills of a Faure or a Britten. Whether in simple reverie, prayer or the sudden throes of fear, Soprano Roberta Alexander imbued every word with wholesome emotion, and while her vocal delivery was momentarily flawed, her profound musicianship was evident in every bar.

After Bernstein raging wild and Barber in nostalgic mode, Michael Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony gave us animated characterisations, lashings of musical humour and enough decibels to raise the dead. Metropolis, described by Daugherty as "a musical response to the Myth of Superman", is dedicated to the American conductor David Zinman, and Diemecke's UK premiere performance was by far the best-played item on Tuesday night's programme. "Lex" (the super-villain Lex Luthor) opens to ear-splitting referee whistles before the main protagonist enters in the guise of a fiendishly difficult fiddle solo (boldly surmounted by Stephen Bryant). The exploding planet "Krypton" employs a wailing siren, antiphonal fire bells and a mass of effects reminiscent of Varese; the mischievous imp "Mxyzptlk" calls on flutes, whips and snappy pizzicatos; "Oh, Lois!" flies "faster than a speeding bullet" and the over-long finale "Red Cape Tango" ("composed after Superman's fight to the death with Doomsday") relies heavily on the Medieval Latin Death chant "Dies irae"- Metropolis is an aural riot crowded with ricocheting percussion and propulsive rhythms, though with the odd pause for breath thrown in - if only for the players' survival. Daugherty is a self-confessed eclectic who scouts music's highways for usable trash, revels in organised chaos and plainly doesn't take himself too seriously - or at least I hope he doesn't. Metropolis will infuriate hard-core modernists, though the rest of us might settle down with a can of Coke and comic or two, crashing out with our finer sensibilities "off the hook".

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