BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican Hall, London

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There is no champion of new music from Italy, no Boulez or Adès to step forward as a figurehead. Since the heady days of the 1970s, when Abbado used to drop occasional pieces by Luigi Nono into his concert programmes, living Italian composers seem to have lost their voice.

So it was a novelty to find the BBC Symphony Orchestra putting on an Italian evening that opened with a composer who is not already a name in the history books. Ivan Fedele was born in 1953, has held academic posts from Harvard to Helsinki, and will have his new opera Antigone performed at next year’s Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. The BBC chose something shorter to open with: the orchestral piece Scena, which lasts 17 minutes – though David Robertson’s introduction to it, with musical examples, managed to double that.

Much was made of its Italian credentials. The work was written for La Scala, Milan, and features step-wise scales (“la scala” means “the staircase”) as an in-joke. Italy’s theatrical tradition was also invoked, though trying to identify a couple of the score’s singularly unmemorable ideas as “characters” was pushing it. Fedele knows how to write for an orchestra and the music always sounded atmospheric with its lush textures and suggestive percussion. Of the supposedly strong narrative there was barely a sign. It started. It stopped. What happened in between was not unpleasant.

In theory, Rossini is long deceased, though there is such life bursting out of his Stabat Mater that you would not think so. Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gave a performance of it at the Barbican earlier in the year that could have raised the dead. This BBC performance was not on that level, though David Robertson conducted with keen, Italianate rhythms and energy. The four soloists – soprano Majella Cullagh, taken close to her limit, sturdy mezzo Patricia Bardon, tenor Colin Lee with his white sound and bel canto line, and always-sure-and-steady bass Alastair Miles – did not equal their OAE counterparts. The best feature of the evening was the BBC Symphony Chorus, impeccably drilled and fiery Italians for the evening, every one of them.
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