MUSIC / Tastes for all palates: The London Sinfonietta celebrates its 25th anniversary in the Barbican today. Bayan Northcott wonders about its future

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You can have a plate of duck livers with Pistachio nuts and Melba toast, followed by a roulade of lemon sole filled with spinach mousselline in the supper interval of the London Sinfonietta's 25th Anniversary Gala at the Barbican this afternoon and evening. Or there is a vegetarian platter including timbale of broccoli with a mint vinaigrette, pimentoes stuffed with rice . . .

And the sonic bill of fare? The afternoon programme, at least, is sandwiched between two of those nourishing modern classics the Sinfonietta has always been committed to keeping before the public: Varese's brazenly constructivist Integrales and Schoenberg's surging First Chamber Symphony. There is also the customary new commission from one of the ensemble's favoured composers, Robert Saxton - a concerto for its Principal Trumpet, John Wallace, entitled Psalm - a Song of Ascent; plus the first London performance of four filigree Songs Without Voices by Oliver Knussen, who has contributed so vastly, as composer, conductor, record producer and unofficial adviser, to the Sinfonietta's last 14 years. But in the midst of all this, the outfit's Artistic Director, Paul Crossley, has elected to perform that not altogether unconsidered trifle, Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, while the second half of the junketings - after the feuillette of vegetables with honey and asparagus dressing - progresses from Stravinsky's crunchy Soldier's Tale, staged with John Sessions, to a sorbet of Jerome Kern and Cole Porter entitled On Broadway.

Well, after all, a gala, unlike a solid balanced concert, can plausibly be planned as a gallimaufry - and the Sinfonietta was involved in an award-winning recording of Showboat back in the Eighties. All the same, the inclusion of the Ravel - surely the most frequently performed of this century's piano concertos after Rachmaninov's Second - rather than one of the rarer modern piano and ensemble works, could well rile some of the Sinfonietta's critics.

Judging from professional gossip and audience comment overheard after recent concerts, there seem to be rather a lot of them around just now. Granted, certain gripes about the Sinfonietta cornering most of the meagre new music subsidies while promoting only an elite of composers, are almost as old as the ensemble itself - often boiling down to the special pleading of the passed-over. More recent mutterings about performances lacking their wonted exactitude and electricity have told a similarly ambiguous tale, since suggestions that some of the players are getting on a bit hardly square with criticisms of various younger recruits for failing to measure up to their standards.

But it is the way certain long-standing Sinfonietta supporters, both in and out of the profession, are beginning to shrug sadly that every performing outfit has its lifespan which must, and doubtless does, exercise Crossley most. After all, in taking over the artistic directorship in 1989 from the late Michael Vyner, he not only risked side-lining his own career as a concert pianist, but faced the necessity of dismantling some of his old friend's most cherished ventures, such as the associations with Opera Factory and Glyndebourne. Yet Crossley has also abandoned the tone of hype and self-advertisement that was one of the less prepossessing features of the old regime. More positively, he has sustained the education programme with its vital, sometimes disturbing forays for Sinfonietta players and composers into schools and prisons; he has appointed, in Paul Meecham, an independent-minded young General Manager with experience both among players and in publishing; and he has even got round to invoking the second Sinfonietta commission from a woman composer in the last 16 years.

Since Crossley has somehow managed both to guide the ensemble and to sustain his playing - witness his forthcoming complete solo Debussy on the South Bank - it would seem invidious to suggest he ought to plump full-time for one or the other, though the appointment of a comparably informed composer-conductor as Music Director would surely help. As for the Sinfonietta's alleged loss of glamour, this could at least partly be ascribed to the temper of the time, with its apparent preference for Toy Music of minimalist provenance and Conviction Music of sacred or political intent rather than Musical Music which sets out to provide its own intrinsic experience of substance and freshness.

Actually, the ensemble has played its due complement of Michael Torke, Henryk Gorecki and James MacMillan. Should Crossley and his colleagues simply continue to programme less obviously 'accessible' figures, past and present, in the way they do now - hoping that the subsidies will go on rolling in and the larger public may ultimately respond again to more challenging stimuli? Or should present discontents be seized as a pretext for the reappraisal not just of the content but the very format of concert-giving?

Curiously, one of the more conspicuous Sinfonietta derelictions, at least since the big Schoenberg, Weill, Webern, Stravinsky and Varese festivals of the 1970s and early-1980s, has been the patchy representation of what ought to be its core repertoire: those modern masters who have continued to interest at least some listeners in every generation over the last 50, 60 or 70 years. The Schoenberg Chamber Symphony pops up periodically as a party piece, but when did Sinfonietta regulars last get the opportunity to hear Webern's haunting, crepuscular Symphony Op 21; or when will they get an adequate chance to assess Stefan Wolpe?

There are also undoubtedly some cases of injustice towards living or recently dead composers to remedy. Whether or not it is true that the late Elisabeth Lutyens was summarily dropped for criticising Michael Vyner's table manners, the best of her output is long overdue for revival. Then there are a number of contemporary composers apparently still deemed too conservative to commission unless, like Robin Holloway, they can be plausibly presented as post-modernist. Yet categories of radicalism and reaction are by no means so sure as they seemed 20 years ago, and the inviting, say, of such committed traditionalists as Anthony Payne or David Matthews to measure up to the glittering abstraction of Boulez or the labyrinthine constructivism of Ferneyhough could produce some genuinely charged programmes.

In fact, the Sinfonietta is already offering a precedent for such juxtapositions in its contribution to Towards the Millennium in March when the sandwiching of Flos Campi by Vaughan Williams between folkloristic scores of Bartok and Stravinsky should reveal some unexpected cross-connections. And one recalls how mutually enhancing the Schubert-Webern festival proved back in 1978- 9. Is it not time to re-explore the possibilities of trans-historical programming, the meaningful juxtaposing of the modern, the medieval, the rare and the standard repertoire pioneered so boldly by William Glock back in the 1960s? After all, in seven years, the entire contemporary catalogue will itself be music of the last century.

And what of younger composers? One frequently unhelpful injunction inherited from Vyner and indeed traditional concert-giving is that new scores should be at least 20 minutes long, though some of the most influential ever - think only of Debussy's L'Apres-midi - have been under 10. Inviting aspirants to make their mark in tight timespans could be a way to spread commissions. Would it result in fragmented programmes? Then make them briefer, more intense - which would benefit Webern too. Might audiences resist travelling in for short measure? Then reconsider lunchtimes and early evenings or even Alexander Goehr's suggestion that commissions should be placed not for first performances, but first recordings . . . Whatever the conclusions, and despite the cavils, we can be pretty sure, given the leadership, these players will continue to deliver the goods.

Today at 3pm (broadcast on R3 10.30pm tomorrow) and 7.30pm, Barbican Centre (071-638 8891)

(Photograph omitted)

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