New music and the disco from hell

Anthony Holden writes in today's Observer ~ 'Alpha-gamma is a grade given by Oxford dons to bright but 'wayward' students, according to Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Michael Berkeley's guest on Radio 3's Private Passions last weekend. The prof was speaking of the hit-and-miss output of Delius. But it struck me as the perfect grade for too much contemporary music, the best and worst of which was on display in a London Sinfonietta concert conducted by the meticulous Diego Masson.

What wonderful players make up the Sinfonietta, a band of individual virtuosos blending into an ensemble of thrilling panache. How dispiriting, therefore, that they choose to play such vacuous music so much of the time. Few living composers can hold their own beside the late Luciano Berio when it comes to musical bravura, inventiveness and character, but some are barely fit to grace the same programme.

Berio's dazzling Laborintus II, a model of musical architecture, construction and diversity, was the nourishing red meat in a sandwich otherwise staled by the arid austerity of Simon Bainbridge and the garish monotony of Anna Meredith. Bainbridge's Music Space Reflection was inspired by the buildings in which it was written to be performed, the Imperial War Museum North and Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum. Shards of glass drifting down a giant screen were no substitute for the ingenious spaces created by Daniel Libeskind as the sound bounced around giant speakers in the work's London premiere.

As with his Diptych, recently premiered by the BBC Symphony, Bainbridge is composing 'vertically', with minimal linear flow. As important as his clusters of bleakly meditative chords are the conspicuous silences between them, creating a mood as sombre as the Jewish Museum in Berlin (photo above), which first fired his response to Libeskind's architecture. To perform this work outside the spaces for which it was written seems, on reflection, an emptily academic exercise.

The hall was packed with excited young people, all there, apparently, for the gaudy electronic confections of Anna Meredith, whose flak was rendered no more interesting by the smoke filtered into the coloured spotlights as the QEH turned into the disco from hell. The filament of the light-bulb projected on to its giant screen became ever more fascinating as the work's 20 minutes ground very slowly by.'

Now take the path to Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin.
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