London Sinfonietta at 40

London Sinfonietta; Masson / Bronnimann

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2 December 2008 4 stars

London Sinfonietta

The London Sinfonietta, one of the world's leading contemporary music ensembles, celebrated their fortieth birthday last night with a typically forward looking concert of new and newish works from composers young and old. Eight of those works were receiving their world premieres, whilst the evening was book ended by thrilling performances of two more substantial pieces, Birtwistle's Cortege (2007) and John Adams' Chamber Symphony (1993).

The event had the air of a celebration. The unusual program of short works was augmented with visuals from Flat-e, informative notes and reflections upon the ensemble's origin and development over the past forty years from artistic directors, composers, conductors and founders alike, a large wall where the public could draw or write in marker their birthday wishes, and, finally, a free drink for everyone after the concert. A large amount of goodwill exists towards the group in London, and the large turnout and warm reception given to the players throughout can be seen as powerful evidence of the public's gratitude for the crucial work the ensemble has done for new music in Britain in the last decades.

Fittingly, Harrison Birtwistle's Cortege was the opening work of the night for a group that has become so intertwined with his fiery, theatrical music. Cortege is an extremely strong and economical work in which fourteen musicians, arranged in a semicircle like a chamber choir, each stride out to take a solo at the front of the stage, before being deposed by a colleague. A small ensemble consisting of piano, cello and double bass are stationary in support, whilst a percussionist bangs out his colotomic signals at the front. Each soloist is asked to play highly intricate and intense little segments of the solo line that gradually unfolds and loops back on itself through the course of the piece, but they also provide accompaniment when not soloing. The work is typical for the composer in that it employs theatre and a pointed sense of ritual in alliance with the musical processes to create a wonderfully integrated sense, a nervy sort of musical trap where a dynamic of inevitability is paramount. The performance was profoundly in tune with the fulsome concentration and force required of each participant. The emptiness of the theatre in late-Stockhausen was suggested by the amazing cohesion of the music and action in Cortege.

A concert consisting of ten distinct works will of course present much organisational problems, and so it was here that we had top wait a full ten minutes before the stage was ready for the rest of the first half. Fortunately no more longeurs of this nature occurred on the night. Five more works were played in the first half, each of them a world premiere.

The three younger composers who had pieces being played each displayed an individual talent of quite a distinct profile, though all showed a concern for the precise timbral and sonic aspects of their music, and each showed very contemporary sensibilities in terms of orchestration and form. Christian Mason's (b. 84) In Time Entwined, In Space Enlaced spent much of its time exploring different interlocking panels of sound, though the composer seemed a little unsure of how to convincingly create an interesting discourse of sound as such. The ultrasonic tones that came in intermittently from beyond the stage were blended with bowed cymbals quite memorably though. Claudia Molitor's (b. 74) untitled 40 (desk-life) was a fiercely concentrated little work where the sounds of a pencil on paper, and a pencil being sharpened, took centre stage (via contact mikes). It was a compelling little dramatisation of everyday sounds, something akin to the work of the Irish composer Jennifer Walshe, and it successfully upheld a fresh attitude to sound over its seven or so minutes. The acoustic tones that entered here and there on piano, then on strings, were striking in this context.

Diego Masson

Larry Goves' (b. 80) Springtime was perhaps the strongest work of the three. Its hushed profile and busy high range textures made out of a small number of gestures in harp and piano evocatively recalled the great Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. Goves displayed a fine ear for delicate colour and subtle drama throughout, and the Sinfonietta's nuanced performance brought out all the startling musicality of the score. Juliet Fraser sung strongly in a dual role- both live and pre-recorded- that submerged the text of Matthew Welton's eponymous poem into the immersive musical ocean. Next was John Woolrich's Fragment, a small and quite beautiful little eulogy to the Sinfonietta for soprano sax, performed with supple lyricism by Simon Haram. Closing the first half was Birtwistle's The Message for trumpet and e-flat clarinet. This piece brought another exciting, striking little performance, with Timothy Lines on clarinet especially achieving a beauty of tone and litheness of line quite apposite to the interchange at the heart of the work.

The second half of the concert was shorter than the first, containing only four works to the six heard earlier. The finale was a white hot version of John Adam's shockingly energetic Chamber Symphony, conducted by Diego Masson in irrepressible, imposing form. Adam's paean to the springy cartoon music of composers like Raymond Scott, transmuted through the polyrhythms and staccato lines of Stravinsky and the chromatic polyphonies of early Schoenberg, is a bewildering work, one that stands apart from the massed orchestral sonorities typical in his other, more rigorously minimalist music. The Ligeti of San Francisco Polyphony and the Stravinsky of the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments are obvious jumping off points for the effervescent outer movements, but Adams clearly makes of these influences his own brazen brand of mechanical spinning top music, heavily indebted also to the drum-led extravaganzas of Dixieland jazz.

Masson and the players brought forth a fierce four-to-the-floor feel, whilst always staying with the rich clashes of rhythm and line that occur in the inner parts of the score. The middle movement, the 'Aria with Walking Bass', showed the composerís wonderful ability for invention within a strict framework. That stricture here took the form of the ostinato suggested in the title, an ostinato shared between double bass, bassoon and others. The performance was such an obvious hit with the audience, as anticipated, that an encore of the finale was given, this time with humorous cartoon accompaniment (why was this not given first time around?) from the animation students of Kingston University.

A performance of Anna Meredith's Lylat, for trombone (or for any instrument 'capable of producing a G-major scale in semibreves') with pre-recorded electronics, began the second half. Like the other pieces of her's I've heard, Lylat displays a keen sense of play, and also a stylistic indebtedness to non-academic forms of electronica. The hybrid spirit that this work explores however feels too light, too aesthetically unresolved to be of any great import. A loose feel is fine, but Lylat felt somehow as if it had been thrown together without any inspiration or feel for the sound materials in play.

David Lang, the recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for music, composed lend-lease for the occasion, a quasi-Messiaen like little chant for piccolo and solo percussionist that explored Lang's typical milieu of chromatic modality and repetitive rhythmic forms. The brevity of the little piece, and the buoyant spirit of Karen Jones on flute (who excelled also in Cortege), meant lend-lease retained the air of oriental mystery generated in its initial phrases.

The remaining work on the programme, Django Bates' The Corncrake Plays the Bagpipes, was a short little jig for string trio where droning echoes and rich string sonorities and interchanges were given through a prism of folk-inflected chromaticism. The work stood out in this concert as it was the first instance where pulse and melody were construed traditionally, and yet the composer's feel for tension and dissonance prevented too great a disparity of effect being generated between his work, and the others on the programme. The sheer variety of the London Sinfonietta's engagement with and patronage of new music in Britain was thus on stark display in this concert, as was its still excellent and esteemed interpretative vigour.

By Stephen Graham