Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, CBSO Centre, Birmingham; <br/> Gwyneth and The Green Knight, Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London; <br/> Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London

The footstomping way to repay a sound investment

Nick Kimberley
Monday 12 May 2003 00:00

New work is the lifeblood that keeps art beating; and by and large audiences thrive on it. Classical music, though, finds it difficult to attract people to new pieces. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) has devised a surprisingly simple formula for keeping its audiences interested: it makes them pay for new works. And they do, over and over again, as part of the ensemble's Sound Investment project.

New work is the lifeblood that keeps art beating; and by and large audiences thrive on it. Classical music, though, finds it difficult to attract people to new pieces. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) has devised a surprisingly simple formula for keeping its audiences interested: it makes them pay for new works. And they do, over and over again, as part of the ensemble's Sound Investment project.

This is a straightforward "take the money and run'' scheme: run, that is, to the composer and hand over the money to help pay for the new work to be written. The investors get their name in the published score and in the programme; they attend rehearsals; and they eventually see the work premiered. For many of them, it doesn't stop there. They actually follow "their'' piece around: when I saw BCMG play Mark-Anthony Turnage's The Torn Fields in Berlin last September, a dozen Sound Investors had travelled to see the performance.

The latest work to be thus Soundly Invested is Param Vir's The Theatre of Magical Beings, and at its premiere last Tuesday, that entirely healthy proprietorial interest was plain to see. The risk might be that a composer writes down to his patrons, but Vir's piece is not simple or formulaic; it communicates by aural seduction. The composer provides an elaborate note, linking each of the four movements to ancient myth: the self-consuming serpent. Uroborus, the birth of the Buddha and so on. For once, I found the associations too specific, more hindrance than help; as Vir writes: "The music has not been approached through narrative.'' He set things in motion with agitated rustling from a string sextet that quickly infected the rest of the strings, and then the winds. A thunderous percussion episode set up a vigorous momentum, quickly curtailed before it became dogmatic. The second movement grew from slow double-bass glissandos, answered by a brief but haunting oboe melody, the mood quickly picked up by the flute. This was the "Uroborus'' movement, and the string glissandos might somehow represent a serpentine slither, but as the music slid into silence, submission to its woozy charms required no such pictorialism. The short third movement played with sonic contrasts, between silvery vibraphone and low percussion, between flute and bass clarinet; while the final movement took off from a clattering confrontation between the two percussionists, eventually resolved through the emollient efforts of the piano.

The footstomping that greeted the composer's bow showed that his listeners felt their investment, of money, interest and attention, had been amply repaid. The players too, seemed to have enjoyed themselves, responding alertly to conductor Susanna Malkki's absolutely clear direction. The rest of the programme fitted well around this world premiere. David Sawer's Tiroirs ticked mischievously towards something like minimalism, but always retained its own distinct sense of rhythmic life; while Toru Takemitsu's Rain Coming revealed the composer's textural subtlety at its most delicate. Magnus Lindberg's Jubilees permutated familiar gestures to telling effect, even finding room for a genuine slow movement, a most unfamiliar device for this composer. The evening closed with Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks, in which Malkki located something ominous, even aggressive in what can all too easily become an undemanding listen. She is a conductor to watch, and this ideally varied programme shows her, and BCMG at their best.

The notion of "opera for all the family'' smacks of that rather Victorian idea that art is morally uplifting, "life-enhancing'' in the critical cliche. Lynne Plowman's "musical adventure'' Gwyneth and the Green Knight, to a libretto by Martin Riley, has its moments of missionary zeal, and at two hours long might be thought to demand too much of its younger listeners. But at the Linbury Theatre, as the opera approached its climax, and the Green Knight raised his axe to behead Gawain, the pre-teen nearest me gasped and stuck her fingers in her ears. She did, however, keep her eyes open. Clearly she was still pretty involved.

Gawain, the Green Knight, beheading: the resemblance to Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain can hardly be accidental. There was even a Birtwistlean repetition ritual as a stag was hunted down three times over. But Plowman and Riley are not after the high seriousness of Gawain. That's why they introduce Gwyneth, a peasant girl who dreams of joining Arthur's court at Camelot. When she gets there, she finds it a pretty tawdry place, but ambition remains undiminished, and she attaches herself to Gawain, whose misadventures provide the narrative.

Cod medievalisms in the music jostle with the libretto's occasionally rather arch modernisms, such as "It could be you...'' and "Dead boring'', but there are some witty jokes, and Plowman's 13-piece ensemble (conducted by Michael Rafferty) is rarely short of a telling gesture to make its point. If her orchestral writing occasionally provides a merely illustrative soundtrack, and some of the vocal writing is more sing-song parlando than full-on operatic, she tells the story clearly. Birtwistle's Gawain didn't always manage that.

Music Theatre Wales has assembled a characterful cast, and although Sinead Pratschke's Gwyneth is a bit too jolly-hockeysticks for my taste, Richard Wiegold makes a sonorous and ominous Green Knight, while Kathryn Turpin is physically and vocally seductive in the twinned roles of Morgan le Fay and Lady Bertilak. Michael McCarthy's production, designed by Simon Banham, has its moments of village-hall ad hocism, but generally shows the company's familiar virtues of clarity and economy. Opera for all the family? If you must.

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The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is sometimes referred to as a "Rolls-Royce'' orchestra but apparently the van carrying its equipment does not merit the same description: thanks to an accident en route last Sunday, it arrived at the Royal Festival Hall at 7.30pm, the advertised starting-time for the orchestra's concert. Amazingly enough, the players took the platform only 40 minutes later, and, under Bernard Haitink, proceeded to give an exhilarating account of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony, a work that knocks tentatively at the door of the 20th century, while looking longingly over its shoulder to the 18th century.

Haitink is not a conductor to succumb to the glazey-eyed mysticism that often passes for Brucknerian dedication, nor does he have a reputation for teetering on the brink, but paradoxically his eminently down-to-earth approach paid off in a performance which took risks. Some slips and slurs, notably in the brass section, were reminders that there are ghosts even in this mighty machine, ensuring that there was more to the performance than the high-gloss sheen that sometimes seems to matter most to today's great orchestras. The Beethovenian swagger of the scherzo and, above all, the gallop of the finale's climax had a wildness that it was impossible to resist. If raucousness can ever be refined, this was it.

BCMG: St Edward's School, Oxford, (0870 750 0659), 7.30pm tonight; 'Gwyneth and the Green Knight': Anvil Theatre, Basingstoke, (01256 844244) Tuesday

Anna Picard returns next week

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