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New to London I

Queen Elizabeth Hall
05/10/1999 -  
Peter Lieberson Free and easy wanderer (London premiere)
Hans Werner Henze Voie lactée ô soeur lumineuse (UK premiere)
Elliott Carter Luimen (London premiere)
Peter Lieberson King Gesar (UK premiere)

Omar Ebrahim (narrator)
Oliver Knussen (conductor), Peter Lieberson (conductor)
London Sinfonietta

This programme has the subtitle "Musical history in the making", but of course the verdict of history is never in yet. Still, it looks promising in the range of its composers and their traditions: the grand old man of American composition, a romantic European with neo-classical leanings, and a younger, but established, American with Buddhist and east Asian interests.

Elliott Carter's lapidiary Luimen for plucked instruments, percussion and brass, is neatly emblematic of his characteristic combination of formal invention and tense, modern mood. Carter's place in musical history, of course, does not need making. He is clearly above worrying about being "labelled plinky-plonky" in any case, but overcoming all preconceptions about their instruments Helen Tunstall on the harp, Alison Stephens on the mandolin and, especially, Steve Smith on the guitar emphasised the shape of the music, and even the melodies, rather than the tonal formalities.

Hans Werner Henze's Voie lactée ô soeur lumineuse is a toccata in form, that is, a suitably meandering series of improvisations that evoke the Milky Way seen in the Kenyan sky. The sections are a kind of dialectic between regular rhythmic passages and more loosely formed evolving melodies, and between mellow strings and clarinets (there are no abrasive oboes) and resonant brass and percussion. The eight-minute work suggests, again, an emblematic cosmology, a succinct, vestigially mythological, vision of a universe fixed and regular in its laws, and rolling along at the same time, slowly but beautifully.

Peter Lieberson's Free and easy wanderer, which began the programme, is similarly compact and gently evocative, though of a simple mood rather than a big idea. Its six minutes are enjoyable, never banal, but never (presumably by design) quite stimulating either.

King Gesar, also by Lieberson, is in comparison on an epic scale. It is the life story of the Tibetan Buddhist hero-king, from his miraculous birth, childhood exile, recall and coronation through his victory over the heretical,  Tirthikas whose violence and dissidence threaten the order of the world, to his liberating completion of life. Lieberson sets the libretto, which consists of sections of prose and verse by Douglas Penick, as very rhythmic speech or Sprechstimme over a neo-romantic score for a small ensemble flanked by pianos.

Somehow, the narrative is too close to Stars Wars to avoid making the music sound like anything else at some points. The heroic canter of the action passages is still stirring, though, and the writing for the cello and flute (separately and together) in the reflective and emotional passages -- for example, as mourning for the wounded earth and in the song without words of the goddess Manene who sends Gesar on his great mission -- is often very beautiful.

Perhaps we don't need to think that history is being made. All of tonight's works  were perfectly enjoyable, and made up an effective programme. Isn't that enough?

H.E. Elsom



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