music Annette Morreau London Philharmonic / Gunther Schuller, RFH, London


Annette Morreau
Friday 30 June 1995 23:02

I couldn't help wondering how Gunther Schuller - the American "can do" composer, conductor, administrator, publisher, record producer, author, teacher - might have responded to Declan MacManus's two-and-half- minute Edge of Ugly if it had turned up in one of his composition classes. "Change your name" perhaps? Which is exactly what MacManus has done - though not to conceal either identity or weakness. Elvis Costello is a song inventor, a miniaturist, who really shouldn't bother about the vast open spaces of the symphony orchestra - which to an extent he hasn't, since Thursday's "world premiere" - in a concert conducted by Schuller, with the London Philharmonic "and friends" - was gone almost before it arrived.

Costello, in his programme note, modestly suggests that his work was "not intended to stop traffic" - it didn't. But it did expose, perhaps all too exactly, how the symphony orchestra needs much more substantial feeding if this colourful machine is to work well. But Costello wasn't the only one of the night's composers to trip over, even if the stumbling was for different reasons.

Almost all the works here had been written either for another purpose or by composers more used to writing for a different purpose. Bernard Herrmann, composer of Psycho and (appropriately for "Meltdown") Fahrenheit 451, was dished up in a disappointly brief suite from Taxi Driver, without the visuals; Erich Wolfgang Korngold in his all-too-extended Violin Concerto, desperately in need of some visuals; Duke Ellington, partially divorced from his visuals, in Night Creatures (a concert work) and The Anatomy of a Murder (a film score); and Mark-Anthony Turnage, never needing a single visual but with the clearest pictures in sight, in Drowned Out.

Taxi Driver was Herrmann's last score, Citizen Kane his first; in between came all those masterpieces of aural matching for Hitchcock. But without Scorsese's searing pictures, the score seemed over-exposed with large and over-obvious gestures, even if Martin Robertson's evocative saxophone brought some chill.

Alexander Balanescu was an inspired choice as soloist in Korngold's unashamedly voluptuous Concerto. His pedigree is immaculate: a Romanian romantic with a touch of Campoli in his manner, a technique worthy of Heifetz (who first played this concerto) and a delight in "cross-over" - from Bach to Nyman, via David Byrne.

In a night of musical contradictions, Mark-Anthony Turnage's Drowned Out was the only piece succinctly and devastatingly to achieve its ends. This grim orchestral picture belongs with the sea images of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. If a slightly slow tempo undermined the impact of its hysterical central dance section, it remains an orchestral tour de force, to which the LPO responded with glee. Turnage, incidentally, was a student of Schuller's...

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