Reviews: Seamless slide from baroque to rock

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Oxford Contemporary Music Festival

Sheldonian Theatre

"Bach meets Zappa" on Friday was one of the high points of the excellent current . Not exactly a meeting, perhaps - more that the intervening pieces led most ingeniously from the baroque matter to the (ever-more-acceptable) enfant terrible.

The 3rd Brandenburg, for strings alone, is of course often held out as an off-beat model for modern composition students. It denies the standard division of forces into concertino and ripieno groups; instead Bach treats each section as soloists in turn - instrumentation, (as in 20th-century music), is a structural device. How better to grasp Bach's originality than to hear immediately after it a work directly inspired by Brandenburg 3 - Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1936). Here each one of the 15 instruments is a soloist, their lines converging and receding in a texture tenuously held together by the two horns.

This is exactly the sort of music which made the Parisian avant-garde rail against Stravinsky; but it was written at exactly the same time as his Jeu de Cartes for American Ballet, and the sprightly third movement reminds us of Balanchine's remark at the time "You can dance to every note Stravinsky has ever written".

Such a piece d'occasion - it was written for the 30th wedding anniversary of the art-patron Mrs Robert Bliss - might seem at the opposite end of the scale from Conlon Nancarrow's intense, private exploration of sound in his indefatigable Studies for Player-piano (heard by himself and his wife alone in their Mexican apartment for many years). His Piece No 2 for small orchestra (1986) is one of his very few works for any other instrument. It was a delight, a revelation. What a fine orchestrator! His difficult, contrasting rhythms - instead of being a reductio ad absurdum of rhythmic proportions a la John Cage - here sounded merely as if two or three different groups of strolling mariachi players were passing in the Plaza Garibaldi, outside his window, at the same time. The trumpet interjections, in particular, sounded distinctly Mexican, as did the constant instrumental glissandi and the growing rhythmic excitement of the accelerating second half.

Nancarrow once said "My two big passions are jazz and Bach". I expected nothing so approachable from the minimalist Steve Reich; but his Eight Lines, if rhythmically complex, showed his basic harmonic conservatism. His two pianos are like the driving force of an engine, generating a rhythm so regular that the slightest variation becomes an event; this is music to be described in the language of cybernetics.

And so to Frank Zappa. I must say that the anarchist who wrote We're only in it for the money, climbed up the organ at the Albert Hall and belted out such songs as My Guitar Wants to Eat your Mama sounds considerably tamed in these orchestral arrangements by Philip Cashian.

Everything worked here - the throbbing brass in Uncle Meat, the plangent double woodwind in Alien Orifice. Truly a lament for alienated man. The final Black Page No. 2, with full rhythm section, ended in a blaze of virtuosity and excitement.

The Britten Sinfonia's outstanding young players made all this difficult music lucid. The whole scrupulously prepared concert, well and enthusiastically attended, showed just how valuable this festival has become.