This group plays music the way we hum a nursery rhyme
For contemporary music fans, the highlight of the ''Britain Salutes New York 1983'' festival had to have been the three-night visit of Peter Maxwell Davies's unique group The Fires of London.Skip to next paragraph
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''Fires'' was set up to perform Davies's music, and of late they have been branching out to play some of Elliott Carter's music as well. I caught up with two Davies works and a brand new Carter.
''Le Jongleur de Notre Dame'' tells the traditional French tale of a juggler-turned-monk who lacks the skills of his brethren, but his simple gift of juggling is accepted by a statue of the Madonna, while the more eloquent praise of the others is rejected.
Davies gives the brothers voices of instruments. The Abbot sings, and the Juggler juggles. It is a childlike story, told in a simple manner that somehow sounded lackluster from the composer of ''Eight Songs for a Mad King'' or ''Miss Donnithorne's Maggot.''
In fact, ''Eight Songs,'' which closed the first program, remains a crowning achievement - a virtuoso theater piece that ideally weds music to theater to song. Each player has a pivotal role in the piece, though Michael Rippon emerges as the dazzling star of the piece - as Mad King George.
Mr. Carter's ''Triple-Duo'' is a 21-minute Carterian exploration of the sonoric possibilities of three sets of two instruments each - flute-clarinet, violin-cello, piano-percussion. As with most of Mr. Carter's music, first hearings reveal little more than thorniness and complexity.
The Fires musicians - Philippa Davies (flutes), David Campbell (clarinets), Rosemary Furniss (violin-viola), Jonathan Williams (cello), Stephen Pruslin (keyboard instruments), Gregory Knowles (percussion) - are virtuosos all and form an astounding group of talent. They play Davies the way we hum nursery tunes, and hearing them perform this music is a special experience. London Symphony
The London Symphony Orchestra paid New York's two major concert halls one visit each last week, also as part of ''Britain Salutes New York.'' It no longer sounds like the warm, glowing ensemble that used to visit these shores when Andre Previn was its chief. Claudio Abbado has a harder ear, and the orchestra sounds glassier, edgier, sterner. In fact, the orchestra sounded downright unfriendly in Avery Fisher Hall, a place that emphasizes the most unpleasant qualities of any orchestra that performs there.
The Webern ''Six Pieces'' that opened the program went for naught for the audience noise that drowned most of the performance out. Stravinsky's ''Firebird Suite'' received an analytic, chilled account that refused to revel in any beauty of texture. Mahler's First had grand proportions, an amazing seriousness (even when wit and irony were called for) and an explosive grandeur that packed a certain punch.
At Carnegie Hall, the orchestra sounded happier, a bit warmer, and thrillingly virtuosic. But again, a chilliness pervaded the air. Elgar's brooding, haunting Cello Concerto was given a dispassionate performance from both masetro and the rich-toned cellist, Antonio Meneses. Berlioz's ''Symphonie Fantas-tique'' was laced with virtuosic relish, but any attempt at capturing Berlioz's visions of love, death, and pandemon-ium was not evident.