If crossing the borders between different forms has become one of the most distinctive attributes of contemporary "straight" music, there's still a slightly schoolboyish transgressive thrill to be had by hearing The Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" in a concert programme. Arranged by Barnaby Oliver for Barber's 12-piece band, Lou Reed's epic thrash retained its essential elements, the three-chord trick of the original stretched to breaking-point by thrumming strings, blasting horns and satisfyingly noisy percussion. With Philip Glass having already made symphonies out of Bowie's Low and Heroes, an oratorio based on the works of Johnny Moped surely can't be far behind.
Entitled Roll Over Beethoven: American Rebels and Music from the Sixties, the Cardiff-based Barber's new programme is a wonderful mix of the sacred and the profane. Opening with an arrangement of Terry Riley's minimalist classic, In C (which sounded even more like "Three Blind Mice" than usual), the repertoire moved to jazz with Barber's arrangement of Chick Corea's "Now He Beats the Drum, Now He Stops", the 1968 trio recording beefed up by swooning horn choruses into a variant of big-band swing. Another Barber re-arrangement, of John Cage and Lou Harrison's Double Music from 1941 (with two of the original percussion-quartet parts redistributed to the whole band), was astonishingly good. Like a mutant version of incidental music from a Warner Brothers vehicle for Peter Lorre set in some unspecified Eastern locale, it sounded as contemporary as any of John Zorn's recent deconstructions.
After this, the first world premiere of the night, trample young lion by David Lang (a co-founder of New York's Bang on a Can new music festival), was a little disappointing. Part of a project whereby Lang is gradually setting the entire Book of Psalms to music, the short piece built on a disturbingly off-beat drum rhythm to conjure up an uneasy tension between ancient ritual and modern urban nightmare.
In the second half, the potentially ridiculous gave way to the sublime, as the tumultuous "Sister Ray" was followed by Morton Feldman's beautiful, and incredibly quiet quartet composition from 1965, Four Instruments. Here, single notes on a xylophone were echoed by short phrases on piano, cello and violin to produce a rich, meditative, musical language. The second world premiere, Obrigado 11 by the American composer Robert Moran, evoked through a shimmer of strings and percussion a sense of the composer's visit to Brazil which had inspired the piece, before Barber's own Shut Up and Dance ended the evening. A melange of ethnic styles, mixing African and South American rhythms with Balinese gamelan and neo-classical orchestral textures, it aptly summarised the virtues of the oomposer's endearingly eclectic approach. While some of the playing from the mainly very young band was perhaps a little rough, the whole daring, programme remained immensely enjoyable. Even the acidic Lou Reed, had he been there, might have nearly smiled.
At the Purcell Room, SBC, London, SE1 tomorrow (0171-960 4242) Phil Johnson
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