Making music with an unorthodox dramatic `flare'

A Fires of London concert is like few contemporary music performances you've attended before. Sometimes the six-musician troupe is clustered on the side of the stage while a singer or dancer holds center spotlight. Other times, the players participate in the stage action, using their instruments as actors use their voices. At still other times, they perform in cages -- like huge mechanical birds. The director of this unorthodox ensemble is also the composer of its arresting, nonmelodic music -- Peter Maxwell Davies. Though Davies has written three symphonies, a full-length opera (``Taverner''), a ballet score (``Salome''), and numerous other pieces, it is the theater works he has composed for Fires that have given him his greatest popularity.

The pieces encompass a wide range of characters and events, from lunatics to ritualistic religious contemplations. They are written for an ensemble that includes a clarinetist (David Campbell), violinist (Mary Mitchell), cellist (Jonathan Williams), percussionist (Mark Glenworth), flutist (Helen Keen), and pianist (Stephen Pruslin -- the group's only remaining founding member and deviser of the enigmatic name).

The musical idiom is lean, atonal (the occasional use of popular, folk, or hymn tunes notwithstanding), and highly expressive of the dramatic mood being depicted.

The Fires' current North American tour began in Toronto last month and ends tonight in Los Angeles and tomorrow in Berkeley, Calif. The repertory represents a cross section of the composer's works, from the 1969 ``Vesalii Icones'' through the '78 ``Jongleur de Notre Dame'' to the '79 opera ``The Lighthouse.'' The song cycles ``Eight Songs for a Mad King'' ('69) and ``Miss Donnithorne's Maggot'' ('74), his two most distinctive and engrossing theater pieces, are also included.

``Vesalii'' is the earliest Davies work played and, curiously, the least compelling to this pair of ears. It is almost insistently morose and unexpressive. How curious that the ``Mad King'' songs were completed in the same year as ``Vesalii Icones.'' In an imaginative, even opulent fashion, they chart the schizophrenic ravings of a bird-obsessed ruler, who passes in and out of sanity in birdlike twitterings and screechings. ``Miss Donnithorne'' (about the real-life model for Dickens's Miss Havisham) fou nd Davies still happy, five years later, to sustain a frenetic mood that lends emotional continuity to the disjointed musings of a now-old lady jilted at the altar in her youth. Both works rely on fiendishly difficult and frankly voice-wrecking parts for the solo singers.

In ``Jongleur'' Davies simplified his style drastically, stressing an intentional naivet'e that lacks charm, at least in this work. That naviet'e also informs several key moments in Davies's own libretto for ``The Lighthouse'' -- a 75-minute attempt to reveal the increasingly demented inner states of three lighthouse keepers on the evening they vanished without a trace. Nevertheless, the score is superbly crafted and captures and sustains an increasingly harrowing and frightening mood as the 75-minute w ork progresses. Clearly, madness most inspires Davies to triumphant theatricality.

Unfortunately, the production as seen in New York looked high-schoolish, though the musicmaking was forceful enough to give the opera impact. Of the singers, tenor Neil Mackie stood out in matters of expressiveness and vocal timbre. In the other vocal works heard, even if ``Fires'' veteran Mary Thomas (Miss Donnithorne) and baritone Andrew Gallacher (the Mad King) fell considerably short of the vocal mark, one could not question their passionate commitment to their respective scores.

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