I Was a Total Virgin is the title of a new collaboration between Michael Nyman and Hanif Kureishi but, when it comes to the pop-classical fusion explored in the genre-bending festival fuseleeds, everyone was a total virgin: even the London Sinfonietta. No one, players or audience, could anticipate what would happen, whether one element would rub against the other, to spark or just fizzle.
The Sinfonietta, fresh from winning a Royal Philharmonic Society award for an innovative audience-development programme, demonstrated in six world premieres why it is open to playing all sorts of musical games. Under the unflappable Martyn Brabbins and with the collaboration of Sound Intermedia, the ensemble brought their discreet commitment to what only occasionally verged on empty spectacle.
Michael Nyman has interwoven the poignant experiences of two men and a woman - recorded in interviews conducted by Hanif Kureishi - into his latest work, I Was a Total Virgin. When the faces of the three speakers were finally revealed on screen, they had already shared intimate secrets and deep sadnesses against a mundane musical background of busy uniformity. As their tales unfolded, the tempo increased, and the volume rose. Sounds swirled around the phrases and sentences, but scarcely changed or enhanced their meanings. In a curious admission of defeat, and to avoid any possibility of words drowning in notes, printed texts were handed out.
The taped speakers' contrasting accents and delivery did add their own kind of music. In her rather expressionless presentation the Asian Didi exposed a violent past, while Jeremy's clipped enunciation conjured his repressed youth, and Bill's characterful working class accent clearly tickled Nyma's ear. He couldn't resist sampling the haunting phrase "I remember" on to a keyboard and playing it in live.
In Arve Henriksen and Peter Tornquist's Crossing Images, the coiling melody, mewling squawks and bluesy wails of Henriksen's brilliant solo trumpet simply blew the band into the background. And the twining, curling video projections provided by Flat-e - one screen reflecting the soloist, the other the orchestra - suggested everything from beetles copulating to smouldering hot metal on a production line.
Piece by Piece, a new venture for Sister Bliss (Ayalah Bentovim, of the band Faithless), was an amiable enough diversion, a handful of short movements drawing heavily on the English pastoral and folk-song vein (she cites Britten and Holst). Mellow yellow, flickering leaves, splashing water, contrasted by slightly disturbing painted faces, featured in the accompanying visuals. They provided a diversion from her often anodyne arpeggio backgrounds and restless refrains, though the occasionally pungent scrunches on her richly romantic canvas suggested something stirring beneath the surface, which might have been her own voice.
The main attraction of the evening was clearly a solo appearance by the Mercury-Prize-winning Antony Hegarty. With as accomplished a pianist as John Constable playing the single-piano-note ostinato that taps gently throughout "Mysteries of Love", he didn't need his band The Johnsons. In Nico Muhly's evocative new arrangements for Hegarty and the London Sinfonietta, the former Chichester choirboy (turned cross-dressing singer-songwriter) stole the show. His puckish face and peculiarly dislocated gestures, bathed in light, were mesmerising to watch, and his androgynous voice, drifting, piercing, and throwing ghostly shadows over the wispy instrumental accompaniment, cast a spell.
In this melting pot of musical styles, it was two middle-aged men who eventually had to be ejected from the hall for making noisy nuisances of themselves while the younger element of the audience watched and listened, entranced.Reuse content