John Cage Uncaged
The Barbican, London EC1
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
The first cough came after barely a minute, the second a moment later. This was perhaps John Cage's most infamous piece - his 4'33" - a three-movement work of total silence for full orchestra.
Despite its title, it can be of any length, and Friday night's performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the opening concert of the Barbican's John Cage Uncaged weekend, came in at five minutes 10 seconds by my watch.
At its first performance in 1952, a piano lid was opened and closed to indicate the start and finish of each movement. On Friday, conductor Lawrence Foster chose to stand on the podium and 'direct' the non-composed, unintentional sounds of a concert hall - shuffling, breathing, coughing, spluttering - a headache for Radio 3 engineers who were broadcasting live and had to override the automatic music system that cuts in after a prolonged break in transmission.
At the close of the first movement, Foster mopped his brow, to the delight of the audience. A stentorian cough punctuated the second movement, followed by several stifled titters, and a majestic sneeze opened the final movement. It was all gloriously daft but served to demonstrate Cage's adage that 'Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise'. The concert set Cage in his American context, alongside such pillars of US music as Charles Ives and Aaron Copland.
But the treat of the evening was the London premiere of Henry Cowell's piano concerto. Pianist Philip Mead donned protective mittens to thrash at the keyboard with the flat of his hand, his elbows and forearms. Crashing tone-clusters and simultaneous themes in different keys ran through the piece, producing a multi-layered texture that was at once alarming and thrilling.
At its premiere in 1928 a squad of Havana police had to guard the concert hall, such were its sins against the traditional concerto. Cheers and shouts greeted Mead's extraordinary performance, a feat of mathematics apart from anything else, as he played in one time signature while the orchestra played resolutely in another. No riot police needed here.
People climbing aboard the giant Parisian Ferris wheel parked outside Birmingham's Symphony Hall last week were sent off on a dizzying ride in a blaze of sparkling lights - not unlike the experience of concert-goers inside the hall, listening to some equally dizzying and dazzling Parisian music.
Here, as if further evidence were needed, was positive proof that baroque music, and the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau in particular, can be playful, funny, skittish and deliciously jazzy.
Period instrument specialist Emmanuelle Haïm directed the conventional forces of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the suite from Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie.
It's a lyric tragedy, but you would never guess it from this joyous, rhythmic music. First staged in 1733, Rameau's adventurous 'modern' orchestration alarmed and delighted in equal measure. And it was the vigour of his rhythm that was most evident in the CBSO's performance. They lacked the plan gent string tone of a period band but their playing was wonderfully agile under Haïm's inspired command.
She was fascinating to watch, using the sort of angular gestures more associated with contemporary dance to draw the music almost out of the air in front of her.
This suite is made up of a series of tiny dance movements; rigaudons, gavottes and minuets abound, but the chief delight was Haïm's decision to include some vocal items in this and in the suite from Les Indes Galantes, Rameau's opera-ballet of 1735.
Soprano Sarah Fox was on ravishing form, singing with real facility, her face radiant with the fun of it all. She revelled in the jauntiness of the first suite's 'Upon These Happy Banks' and the hornpipe 'Love, Like Neptune' and (in Les Indes) wooed us in the Phani's air, 'Come, Hymen', a moment of stillness amid the relentless jollity. A single flute, violin and harpsichord spun a filigree under this gorgeous melody, lightly supporting her ravishing voice. A truly golden moment.
· Anthony Holden is away