The punchy and quizzical music of Charlie Barber has enlivened the scene in south Wales for some while. Listeners around the rest of Britain could hear it at full strength in Radio 3's recent relay of his orchestral piece Shut Up and Dance, and now his own group is out on a short tour. It's an extravagant line-up of a dozen players, with Barber directing. Brass and reeds are offset by strings, a bit like the Michael Nyman set-up but softer-edged, and versatile enough for an engaging repertoire of short pieces inflected by pop, early music, and traditional Asian modes.
It was mysteriously self-effacing of them to start with pieces from the two most distinctive ensemble writers around. You had to wait half the concert to work out the band's own character. And if a group wants to make a bright, overture-like impression with Nyman's In re Don Giovanni, the wind players striding through from the back as their entries arrived, it does help to play together. No synchronisation problems in Gavin Bryars's Sub rosa, but a shaky recorder undermined confidence in its quiet, steady progress. In this familiar, tight-knit music a lack of slickness is death.
For the rest of the first half the pieces themselves seemed out of sorts. Stark, by Graham Fitkin, was also tightly worked, but rather knotty and less ingratiating than Fitkin usually is. Crunching brass chords stand ruggedly in the way of fluency. Eventually it arrives at a Nymanesque riff and seems to be on its way, and then it just suddenly stops. Better that than testing patience; Barber's own writing, too, always has the gift of knowing when to, well, shut up and dance, and each of the four parts of his Khyal made their point succinctly and then moved on.
The point itself was an arguable one. Barber's score took improvised lines from Indian singers and crammed them into the straitjacket of fixed, precise notes, shorn of their ornamental delicacy, then added rotating chord sequences to back them up. If the idea was to show that these flights of fancy collide grindingly with homely harmonies, then it was intellectually quite interesting. What it sounded like, though, especially when the strings soared away in octaves, was a Bombay movie soundtrack adapted for use by missionaries.
From then on it was upwards all the way. You don't hear anything by Colin McPhee as much as you hear about him - he was the composer who became hooked on the Indonesian gamelan half a century before everybody else in the West. Pemoengkah is artful but more or less straight transcription, and it works just fine, with all the intricacies staying within the mode. Arvo Prt's Summa for strings alone made an unexpectedly neat pairing with it - a sort of Estonian medieval gamelan.
Allah Hoo, which was a world premiere by Barnaby Oliver, set out from this world of slow, intense polyphony and gradually turned upbeat. There was an attractive, freewheeling sense of evolving where it would, which in this case was to grow closer and closer to straight pop genres without actually becoming the object it was investigating. It tailed off rather indecisively, but had made its impact.
Finally Barber himself made the impact he usually does with De hoc mundo, an energising compendium of punchy offbeat accents, circling harmonies, combative counterpoints and bright, sharp colours - much more like it. So was his encore, which in another fit of misplaced modesty he did not announce (the score was headed Re: evolution). It was too late to stop the programme feeling bitty, but sent the faithful home in good spirits.
n Tour ends Tuesday, 7.30pm Royal Northern College of Music, 124 Oxford Road, Manchester (booking: 061-273 4504/5534)
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