April 29, 2014
There were two puzzles about this concert, which was part of a UK tour by the Basel Symphony Orchestra focused on American minimalist music. The first was: why on earth it was presented in the bright neo-Byzantine elegance of Cadogan Hall? Minimalist music needs dim light and a groovy ambience. In the Roundhouse this concert would have been packed; the audience at Cadogan Hall was barely passable.
The second was the music itself. Cognitive scientists tell us we’re hard-wired to enjoy repetition in music. Which is true, but only up to a point. Minimalism delights in going beyond that point, with results that can be maddening or intriguing or moving, or all three at once.
That’s a recipe for emotional exhaustion, and to avoid that, minimalist music needs performances which are sympathetic and sensitive rather than merely accurate. The Basel SO certainly did their three pieces proud. In Philip Glass’s Cello Concerto No 2 they were joined by cellist Matt Haimowitz. He shaped the cello’s keening phrases with such care that they seemed like the outpourings of genuine lyricism, which repeats only to intensify.
Thanks to him and the orchestra’s impassioned advocacy, Glass’s concerto skirted the danger of outstaying its welcome, but only by a whisker. In Michael Nyman’s Prospero’s Books, a suite drawn from his score for Peter Greenaway’s eponymous film, the orchestra had a tougher job. Nyman’s piece insisted on its ideas in a way that made Glass’s concerto seem a model of understatement. The orchestra strove mightily to make the music’s incessant full-on intensity seem interesting rather than bullying. But frankly that would have needed a miracle.
The best of the concert came at the beginning, with John Adams’s The Chairman Dances. Here there were no contradictory feelings pulling this way and that. We could simply enjoy this brilliant balletic episode from Adams’s opera Nixon in China, because here minimalism is only a distant memory, heard in the ticking repeated figures in the violins. It’s really a parade of dances in different speeds and styles, tricked out in fantasy colours of glockenspiel and harp, whirling by like a faintly Chinese-tinged phantasmagoria.
In this terrific performance everything was crystal-clear and fervently garish, like one of those Chinese revolutionary ballet posters where dancers gaze into a perfect proletarian future. The numerous sudden tempo changes were supernaturally smooth. In all it was a fabulous ride.
By: Ivan Hewett
Read at: The Telegraph