Mixed blessings of easy listening

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The era when European composers lived in an ivory tower is well and truly over. It lasted until about 10 years ago and left behind a few stragglers. Most composers have come round to the view that it is more rewarding to keep in touch with the world. Promoters do not want audience-killers, and institutions previously enamoured of the avant-garde are now spending their money on composers with the popular touch.

There is no other way to explain why two of London’s leading orchestras should showcase Michael Nyman and Jonathan Dove in their Barbican concerts at the end of last week. A decade ago such names would have looked incongruous next to Mahler, Schoenberg and Sibelius. But here was Nyman’s new cantata, A Handshake in the Dark, in a BBC Symphony Orchestra programme embracing Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden and Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. The following night the London Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance of a trombone concerto it had commissioned from Dove, juxtaposed with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

Has contemporary music become the new easy-listening? These pieces by Nyman and Dove make few demands on the listener, which is not to say they are devoid of musical merit. They are the ultimate in accessibility and that is really what defines them. Unlike the absorbing new Thomas Adès work that the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought to the Barbican on Wednesday, Nyman and Dove do not claim to be original or experimental. They aim to please and that is all right, as long as they succeed.

For his 30-minute cantata Nyman has set verses that the Iraqi poet Jamal Jumá (best known as a champion of erotica) wrote for a brother imprisoned during the 1991 Gulf conflict. The text, more epistolary meditation than poetry, gains nothing from Nyman’s music. He re-arranges the verses, sometimes superimposing one on the other, but never allows them to inform his flat minimalist idiom. Lines such as “We go to the toilet every morning” do not help and Nyman adds to the misery by setting too many words.

But the main problem is the music’s drone-like moderato and leaden rhythmic pulse. You could speculate charitably on whether Nyman intended it as a metaphor for the banality and incoherence of war – in which case it makes for thuddingly dull listening. The piece might conceivably work as wallpaper-accompaniment to a war film but it would need a livelier conductor than John Storgards, under whom the BBC Symphony Chorus laboured.

Stargazer, the title of Dove’s rhapsody-concerto, was a much more positive experience. An easy-flowing dialogue between trombone and orchestra, with more than a little debt to Holst’s The Planets, it is not deep or multi-layered music but engages the listener on its own lyrical terms. With a soloist as expressive as Ian Bousfield it would take a curmudgeon not to be seduced by the trombone’s vocabulary of talking, sighing, whispering and self-communing, all evocative of the unfathomable-ness of the firmament. Towards the end Dove falls back on slick and slushy dance-band music but this is still the best work of his I have heard.

It sat comfortably between the austere minimalism of Steve Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, and the dreamy scent of Mahler’s Fourth – a performance of exceptional freshness and beauty, marred by the podium-vanity of Michael Tilson Thomas.

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