First Night: Against all the odds, a strange mixture is touchingly effective

BBC Millennium Concert Ely Cathedral
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The Independent Online
IF KING Canute had wished to see as well as "Hear These Good Monks Sing" in Ely Cathedral, he would have been out of luck. Stunning though the cathedral is to look at, beautifully lit from within and without, its geography doesn't lend itself to concerts unless you are prepared to crane your neck at unnatural angles or focus instead on the decorated roof.

It was a night for viewers of BBC2 or listeners to BBC Radio 3 rather than for the 1,300 or so people braving the cathedral's chilly climate, glaring television lights and unhelpful sight lines. Many of the audience were as far from the action as the myths of time from which Mark Anthony Turnage's specially commissioned work About Time appears to emerge.

Turnage's new work, the centrepiece of a concert conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, draws together the period-instrument classical Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) and the smaller Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG).

Each group is tuned to slightly different pitches about a quarter of a tone apart, and Turnage had the challenge of bringing them together without compromising their individuality. With the OAE seated in the centre at the cathedral crossing and the members of BCMG out on a limb to the side, there wasn't much chance of the two groups getting too close. With the added dimension of a brass quartet of BCMG players in the dizzy heights of the Octagon above, the emphasis was on the spatial element in time and place as well as pitch. More of a fascinating patchwork quilt than an interwoven tapestry, About Time - which is largely based on a five-note fanfare-like motif - begins with the brass quartet then moves to a solo cello (Ulrich Heinen positioned like an island between the two groups) slithering uneasily between pitches. Wavering, bending, sliding, urged on by drums and maracas, the two opposite groups gradually come satisfyingly together. It's a curious piece, touchingly effective against all the odds.

BCMG played Two Organa by Oliver Knussen, based on the ancient musical technique, organum. It's elusive textures and fine instrumental detail spun round in the cathedral acoustic, adding an ethereal quality. King Canute would surely have liked what he heard even if he could only see it on a television monitor.

Lynne Walker