Two conductors find harmony in anarchic work

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 April, 2004, 12:00am

Earle Brown is Jackson Pollock in sound: random, scattered, shocking, surprising, messy, anarchic, free, expressive and abstract.

It is now known that during the cold war the CIA secretly promoted Pollock's 'abstract expressionist' art worldwide as part of a covert cultural offensive against the Soviet Union - Pollock's outrageous random paint slashes and scattered dots being seen as representations of the total personal freedom only to be found in the west.

Brown's musical compositions were directly influenced by Pollock and the composer, who died in 2002, was so concerned with personal freedom that he often hesitated to impose a musical score on the musicians playing his works.

Last week at London's Purcell Room there was a chance to hear Brown's Event-Synergy 11, a suitably anarchic signature work by one of the fathers of American musical experimentation. Brown's piece was performed by Lontano, an established group that champions the work of radical names in contemporary music.

The musical director and conductor of Lontano is the flamboyant Cuban-born, American-raised and London-based Odaline de la Martinez, the first woman to conduct a BBC Promenade concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

In her dark, well-tailored man's suit and sporting a brightly bleached fringe at the front of her short, black hair, Martinez exuded a zestful confidence. Event-Synergy 11 is a dialogue between two groups of musicians, each with their own conductor. On one side of the stage stood Martinez with her trusty band of string players - violins, viola, cello - and on the other side was American composer Daniel Asia conducting the wind section - bassoon, flute, oboe, horn and clarinet.

Three of Asia's works had made up the first part of the evening. Asia's work is widely performed and admired in the US and this concert was an opportunity for a London audience to listen to a composer still little known on their side of the Atlantic.

Asia's music is warm and accessible, as is the man, and the musical dialogue that ensued between Martinez's strings and Asia's wind in Event-Synergy 11 seemed as much about the musical expression of two contrasting personalities as an exploration of musical dialogue.

Martinez dominated her small band of strings, urging them on with imperative arm gestures as she abruptly changed scores, turned up the volume and stopped and started again at will. From time to time she shot a wry, challenging look at Asia who smiled back gamely if wanly.

The result was an enjoyable piece of visual musical theatricality and an absorbing musical event in which an only partially predetermined piece of music was created.

Asia's work in the first half, in contrast to Brown's, was more orthodox, his neo-tonal musical lines were warm, pleasing and easy to follow.

The first half of Sacred Songs was based on a traditional Hebrew Aramaic prayer, and the second half was centred on Psalm 96.

The lyrical singing and fluent orchestral accompaniment made for easy listening that was perhaps a little too easy for its spiritual subject matter.