The headline-grabbing moment in the BBC's John Cage weekend came as early as the end of the first evening, when the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Lawrence Foster, gave the UK orchestral premiere of his most notorious composition, 4' 33". The three-movement work, in which not a note is played and the musical content is determined by the sounds in the auditorium, is far more talked about than experienced, but here the hype had generated a convincing sense of occasion.
A few coughs and a snatch of quickly shushed conversations apart, the audience was quieter than during most conventional performances, while the orchestra sat as if ready to play as soon as the conductor raised his baton. It was, though, just a novelty, providing no real insight into Cage's thinking. Those were few and far between during this weekend of orchestral and chamber concerts, talks, films and foyer events.
Arnold Schoenberg, who was briefly Cage's teacher in the mid-1930s, got him just right: Cage was, he observed, "not a composer at all, but an inventor - of genius." Indeed, it is the ideas behind the music rather than the compositions themselves that have proved influential.
It was reasonable to include works by composers such as Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, who were influenced by Cage, and even by Satie, Cowell and Varèse, who were important to him. But the vapid pieces by William Schuman and Aaron Copland in the desperate opening concert, and even Carl Ruggles's Suntreader on the second night when the BBCSO was rather more incisively conducted by David Porcelijn, didn't belong there at all.
There was less than an hour of Cage's music in the first two orchestral concerts put together. This included his strange, rather atypical ballet, The Seasons, from 1947, which Foster conducted, and, on Saturday, the more substantial, more characteristic works from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Lore Lixenberg's account of Aria for solo voice was witty and brilliantly realised, while Atlas Eclipticalis is one of Cage's most important works, with a score derived from astronomical charts.
Porcelijn painstakingly measured out time for the members of the BBCSO, and Atlas was played with two of Cage's other indeterminate pieces of the same period: the pianist John Tilbury realised Winter Music, while two sound projectionists scratched and tapped their way through Cartridge Music. The result was a web of whispered sounds, dissolving the boundaries between music and noise, a typical Cage experiment in aesthetics and a brief taste of what the whole weekend should have been about.