Music SINFONIA 21 Michelham Priory, Sussex

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
They say it was love at first sight: the orchestra manager fell for an Elizabethan barn and rushed straight into action. So Sinfonia 21's festival of new and early music in the unfamiliar setting of Michelham Priory was a honeymoon, complete with thrills and over-exertions, uncomfortable discoveries and impulsive changes of plan. But will it make a marriage?

Sinfonia 21 has had an eye for lively repertoire, and a flair for going to work in unexpected social settings, ever since it was founded as the Docklands Sinfonietta. Inner cities are one thing; rural Sussex is another. It was an uphill struggle to reach the country concert audience. Saturday's final concert, however, drew in an appreciative gathering that included first-timers. Afterwards, people said they enjoyed the informal mix of short pieces. They were glad to have composers on the spot, talking and answering questions. Some felt lost or short of information; few were confident in addressing the composers publicly.

New pieces were written by Julian Anderson, Edward Dudley Hughes, Philip Cashian, Piers Hellawell and Rhian Samuel: good names all, but out of the same small world, and much of a muchness for non-specialist listeners. They had to use a theme from a pre-1600 piece, an idea that might have been a gimmick, but apparently caught everybody's imagination.

Of the three in Saturday's concert, Samuel's setting of Path by Anne Stevenson was the most richly felt and realised. An eloquent line for counter-tenor (David James) soared over the resourceful series of sound images towards a definite "event", sudden hushed fragments of Lully to encapsulate the poet's evocation of what can never be. With strings alone, Anderson in Tye's Crye launched engaging quick-fire ambushes on his source material but fleetingly enough to sound like a sketch for something bigger. The slow chordal sequences of Cashian's In the Still Hours brooded with a suppressed intensity that was not fully released.

When Maggie Cole played the Falla Harpsichord Concerto, the sheer lucidity of the music came as a relief. So, too, with John McCabe's Two Latin Elegies - the neatest dovetailing of old and new into a cohesive whole - and the evening's popular hit, the brief and beautiful Incipit Vita Nova by Gavin Bryars. The orchestra, which had crammed rehearsals and concerts into the one week, sounded hard-pressed but spirited. Nobody needed the concluding suite of Purcell dances. The conductor, Martyn Brabbins, alarmingly spoke of it as "sweetening the pill", which begs a few questions.

The sheer density of the "Old Stones, New Fires" festival raises others. Whom, exactly, was it for? It was more than the local public needed, yet it wasn't a draw for visitors. One answer, if it continues, is to cram Michelham Priory with students, teachers, and a non-stop buzz of musical activity that excites curiosity far and wide. Break the performances out of this year's narrow confines and a proper festival could start. Otherwise, though, the marriage risks turning out a mismatch: an idea still after the right place, and a barn seeking the music to bring it to life.