CLASSICAL MUSIC Sinfonia 21 St John's Smith Square, London, and touring

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The Independent Culture
This is the 25th season of the Arts Council's Contemporary Music Network. It's a service to the composer, the performer, the publisher, the broadcaster, the record industry and, of course, the public; it allows contemporary music to tour. The slog and the cost of preparing for a single performance - the norm - is in no other case more wasteful than for new music. How crazy does an artist have to be to spend great swathes of time getting to grips with the complexities of a score by Elliott Carter, Harrison Birtwistle, Mark-Anthony Turnage or whoever, when the chances of the work being heard more than once in the immediate future are infinitesimal? This is where the CMN comes in: a scheme to guarantee more than a single performance, with the money to pay for it, oiling the wheels for more than a one-night wonder. Funny then that there's been so little fuss from the Arts Council, in these anniversary-soaked days, about a scheme that it's had under its belt for so long that's done so much good. (Contrast the Arts Council's Collection, a service for the visual arts, which was given a huge bash for its 25th birthday at the Hayward Gallery.) No celebration, no future? As a prime mover in the CMN's creation (time, perhaps, I declared an interest), I hope I'm wrong.

Meanwhile, at St John's on Monday, Sinfonia 21 (under its gifted conductor, Martyn Brabbins) began a CMN tour that will take it to five out-of-town venues from Cambridge (last night) to Brighton (on Tuesday). There was a tangible festive air, from a large audience glad to welcome the orchestra, newly decked out by M&S (remember the blue-shirted London Sinfonietta?). The programme was echt Network material: two new works by British composers, Julian Anderson (Past Hymns) and Rhian Samuel (Daughters' Letters); one almost-new work by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen (Dances, 1991); and one radically "un-new" (for its time) work by Richard Strauss (Metamorphosen, 1945).

It might seem pretty far-fetched to see any similarity between the "minimalist" Andriessen and the voluptuous Strauss, and yet paradoxically in these two works a marked similarity is evident, the interest in rigorously working out strictly limited material. No matter that, in the case of Andriessen's Dances, the harmonic and colouristic world is "cool" and Ravelian (this is not the Andriessen of driving "boogie-woogie") whereas, in the Strauss, tonal richness has reached the abyss as the composer, agonisingly, metamorphoses German romantic expression via Beethoven's Eroica into his own despairing recognition of German culture's self-destruction. But it is a matter of clear musical identities.

Not so, alas, in the work of the two British composers, Rhian Samuel (too caught by a text) and Julian Anderson (too saddled by unproductive material). The Canadian soprano, Valdine Anderson, was well suited to Samuel's two-song "recitative" but someone should have told her about Andriessen's aversion to vibrato. Brabbins brought out intelligent, energetic playing from the Sinfonia 21 strings in Anderson's all too repetitive work, and a marvellous sensuality in both the Strauss and the Andriessen. A valuable programme. Don't miss it!

On tour: tonight Lancaster, Great Hall (01524 593729); Fri Durham, Elvet Methodist Church (0191 374 3210); Sun Southampton, Turner Sims Hall (01703 595151); Tue Brighton, Gardner Arts Centre (01273 685861)