MUSIC / New blood: Stephen Johnson on the London Sinfonietta

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The London Sinfonietta's 25th anniversary gala last year was an ominous damp squib. Could Britain's premier new music ensemble recover its momentum after a nostalgic flop like that? The signal from Friday's Explorations 94 concert at the Barbican was that the revival may be on its way.

The programme took one backward look: Chain I, given in memory of the late Witold Lutoslawski. This, like several other Lutoslawski works, has become a repertoire piece - and, as Oliver Knussen, the conductor, observed with an audible sigh, of how many living composers can you say that? But the rest of the concert showed that the Sinfonietta is still looking to the future, and to composers whose careers are likely to extend well into the next century.

The 33-year-old Jewish Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov, the oldest of the four young hopefuls represented, explored both strands of his cultural roots in his two pieces: Ballad of the Drowned Solitude, based upon a Sephardic tune and two Spanish lullabies collected by Lorca, and Yiddish Ruakh, starting from an Ashkenazy melody and culminating in the inevitable reference to the Holocaust, in the form of a Polish- Jewish 'song of despair'.

It would have been easy to make emotive capital out of this, but on the evidence here Golijov is not a sensationalist, nor is his music overtly politicised. Yiddish Ruakh, for solo clarinet, strings, horns and piano, balanced the elements of clarinet 'prayer' and ensemble 'lullaby' very tellingly. Michael Collins was a suitably eloquent soloist.

At nearly 20 minutes, Dutchman Robert Zuidam's Octet was a very big bon-bon, though again it was beautifully played. But his little two-voice madrigal Calligramme (il pleut) was a delight, with its mix of bobbing, hocketing phrases and suave, long-breathed lines. Again, splendid performances by Rosemary Hardy (soprano) and Mary King (mezzo).

But the two young composers who left the strongest impression on me were the two Britons: Julian Anderson and Thomas Ades. These are strikingly different voices. Anderson is only in his mid-twenties, but the voice and the manner are already well-focused. Sea Drift daringly took as its starting-point the Whitman poem that inspired Delius, but came up with something very different: much sharper and more angular - more concerned, it seemed, with the straining curiosity of the boy onlooker than with the emotion of grief. In Tiramisu - Anderson is thinking of the title's literal meaning, 'Drag me up', not the contents of the world's most delicious pudding - there were hints of others, but again the handling of the concertante groupings and the steady accumulation of energy was strikingly assured.

In Ades's Living Toys ideas flew crazily about, but what fascinating ideas they often were: mutant Spanish dances on whirling trumpet, a weirdly affecting final threnody. Lutoslawski's loss aside, Explorations 94 seems to have found enough to be hopeful.