The London Sinfonietta celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Royal Festival Hall, London. The idealistic visionaries of the past may be older now, but age hasn't dimmed their spirit. David Atherton conducted, as did George Benjamin : two long-term stalwarts without whom the London Sinfonietta might not be what it is now. The London Sinfonietta changed things, re-shaping music in Britain and beyond. May that legacy never be squandered ! In fifty years, new generations have come to new music, and new music itself has grown and flourished. Was that The Message Sir Harrison Birtwistle alluded to in his fanfare commissioned for this birthday gala ? The piece shines brightly, indeed defiantly, sounds reaching outwards into space. Harry once relished the image of enfant terrible, and indeed, still does, with his earthy common sense. Now he is, arguably, Britain's greatest living composer and long may he reign. He's a true original, and a trailblazer.
The London Sinfonietta isn't an orchestra in the usual sense of the word but a collective co-operative. It adapts to repertoire, covering chamber music and larger-scale ensemble, co-opting other performers, like singers and sound engineers, where needed. No mega opuses tonight, but smaller works of great importance. Stravinsky's Octet (1923) , winds and brass in sonorous mystery, and Ligeti's Chamber Concerto, (1970) which the Sinfonietta worked on with the composer himself. Individual voices for individual instruments, combining. Layers of texture unfold from the woodwind; a slow second movement and a fast fourth movement for contrast. The third movement contains a rubric “preciso e meccanico”, inspired by clocks and machines gradually going wrong. The pianist, has the
instruction, 'hammering like a madman', and the trombone has a strident melody bursting from the delicate sound textures.
Over the years, the personnel have changed. I remember Enno Senft looking like a teenager and John Constable before his hair turned grey. And Sebastian Bell on a bench outside LSO St Lukes, eating lunch, a short while before he died. And when Melinda Maxwell commissioned new work in honour of her mother. I've also heard David Atherton conducting in Hong Kong. So many memories, the London Sinfonietta feels like family. That sense of community lives on. While the ensemble has, in recent years, diverted a lot of effort towards activities other than core music making, it continues to sponsor new work , new composers and new performers.
Tonight, Deborah Pritchard's River Above for solo saxophone, (Simon Haram), and Samantha Fernando Formations a promising work I like a lot - listen again on BBC Radio 3 A special thank you to Deborah Pritchard for her innovative diagrams analysing pieces of music. These are truly innovative. As I write, I've got her study of Birtwistle's Silbury Air in front of me. You can "hear" the music by following her maps, each part marked as on a score but condensed in colours and patterns, intuitively. conventional western notation isn't the only way to read music. A quick and easy way to communicate with creative minds without formality - this is the way to grow audiences and reach people who might be intimidated by the idea that new music is too difficult. More effective, I think, than some tedious "education" ventures.
Which leads neatly to Hans Abrahamsen's Left Alone, with Tamara Stefanovich. "Music is pictures of music", Abrahamsen has said. "That is a strong underlying element in my world of ideas when I compose - as is the fictional aspect that one moves around in an imaginary space of music. What one hears is pictures - basically, music is already there." Abrahamsen's music listens, as a child listens, with purity and wonder. It's alert to the kind of quiet detail that gets missed in a world of white noise and bluster. A child doesn't need to prove anything to anyone. He or she can marvel, without precondition. One of my friends hated Abrahamsen's Schnee (2007) because it "feels like watching snow fall", but for me that's precisely what I love about Abrahamsen. Buddhists believe that the path to wisdom lies in divesting oneself of Self and the need to control. Abrahamsen's music examines sounds from different angles and, importantly, through silence, the antithesis of mental muzak
In Abrahamnsen's Left, Alone the concept "the sound of one hand clapping" is uniquely realized. Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand was
written for Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right hand in war.. Perhaps it carries the memory of a lost limb, as often happens to amputees. Abrahamsen's piece feels, however, like an exploration of something entirely imagined. Left, Alone moves through a series of six vistas, dark rumblings on the lower keys to bright outbursts in the orchestra. Single notes on percussion blocks tempt the piano forth. At first the piano sounds tentative, as if exploring space. A surge of strings from the orchestra, then a long passage of semi-silence. In fact there are several, passages of semi-silence, each one different, so you have to pay attention. Eventually the piano finds its voice, stabbing exuberantly at the keys, the whole orchestra animated in support. Having thus found itself, the piano can return to quietude. Single notes are played, repeatedly. A huge arc of sound from the orchestra, a frenzy of sparkling notes: piano, percussion, winds and strings together. The pace intensifies, bubbling along cheerfully. Not having a right hand is not funny, but the protagonist triumphs, nonetheless. I first heard this in 2016 with Alexandre Tharaud and the CBSO. Stefanovich was more assertive while Tharaud was more probing.
The grand finale - Encore! (14 Variations on a Hornpipe by Purcell). A communal blast, with room for everyone.