MUSIC / One step forwards, two steps back: Stephen Johnson senses a loss of direction at the London Sinfonietta's 25th anniversary bash

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Considered purely as a day's music-making, the London Sinfonietta's '25th Birthday Gala' had its ups and downs. Part 1, a three-hour afternoon marathon, offered enjoyable things. Varese's Integrales made a suitably arresting curtain-raiser. Felicity Palmer may not have been as sharply characterful as Cathy Berberian, or more recently Sarah Walker, in Berio's Folk Songs, but for me she touched unexpected depths. Robert Saxton's new Psalm - A Song of Ascents and Oliver Knussen's Songs without Voices (a London premiere) showed both composers at their ablest and most imaginative. Somewhat less exalted were capable but deadpan playing in Ravel's G major Piano Concerto by the Sinfonietta's director, Paul Crossley, and a hard-driven performance of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 1 under Lothar Zagrosek, with balance as problematic as ever.

Part 2, the evening celebration, was a case of chalk and very soft cheese. First came a production of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale by Stephen Langridge - some nice touches there but a lot of fussy detail. John Sessions' Soldier was a plausible, unexaggerated creation, and the Sinfonietta contribution under Elgar Howarth was encouraging - when one could hear it clearly. Then, after a longer than usual interval, we were taken 'On Broadway' for a selection of hits by Kern, Porter, Weill and Victor Herbert, directed by the American musicals enthusiast John McGlinn. Performances were accomplished and occasionally quite touching, and the absence of any superstar names, and therefore of any accompanying audience obsequiousness (remember the LSO On the Town?), was a definite plus.

But this wasn't simply a collection of concerts - as the Gala brochure was at some pains to stress. It was the 25th birthday celebration of an orchestra - as Paul Crossley put it - 'with a mission'. The Sinfonietta, as Paul Griffiths' introductory article explained, 'has always been more about the present than the past'. A fine declaration, but one which it was difficult to find reflected in the day's events. Apart from the Varese, and possibly the Stravinsky (both a long way pre-war), where was the confirmation of Griffiths' claim that the Sinfonietta 'is about the modernist tradition'?

It was not to be found in the Saxton or Knussen pieces, enjoyable as they were. It might have been accomplished via a timely revival of one of the more challenging pieces from the modernist Sixties and Seventies with which the Sinfonietta has been associated - something by Birtwistle, Carter or Xenakis perhaps - but the lack of anything on that level of difficulty was striking. So too was the absence of a new voice - a member of the rising generation of composers, perhaps, as a sign of faith in the future.

In fact, by the time we reached the evening's long interval, the answer to Paul Crossley's key question, 'What next?', had begun to look like, 'What indeed?' But then came the second half, and the vision of the London Sinfonietta chorus crooning 'Toyland, Toyland / Every girl and boy land' to one of Victor Herbert's stickiest tunes. Let's not be churlish: it was likeable stuff, and likeably done, and one can't blame an orchestra for wanting to expand its horizons - it can be enriching. But if this is what the future means for Britain's premiere 20th-century ensemble, then this wasn't a celebration, it was a wake.