State Of The Nation/ London Sinfonietta, South Bank Centre, London

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The Independent Culture

The London Sinfonietta's latest State of the Nation weekend was bursting at the seams, with performances by the amateur musicians of COMA, electronic improvisation by ReSponge, a recital by Sarah Nicolls (a very capable pianist) and a whole edition of Radio 3's Mixing It programme, as well as four concerts by the Sinfonietta themselves. There was also music composed and played by students of both school and college age. Some of the pieces by teenagers from the Purcell School, whose concert I missed to attend a workshop, was reportedly better than those by the 20-something composers in the imme- diately preceding programme.

Compositional standards were generally higher this year in the Sinfonietta's own concerts, all valiantly conducted by Martyn Brabbins. The Australian John Croft's "Siramour" stood out for taking bell partials and elaborating their resonances with real individuality. I also enjoyed Ben Foskett's "Es gibt einige hohe Wellen", a splendidly brutal exercise in reckless note- and chord-throwing.

The best work was David Gorton's "Oblique Prayers". This setting of poems by Denise Levertov for soprano and large ensemble involves too much fussy moving around of both singer (Claire Booth, more impressive than when I last heard her) and players, but combines an acute imagination for delicate timbral invention with a prodigious command of the unfolding of this half-hour ritual drama.

Collaborations between composers and video artists were sprinkled through the programmes – often of rather modest achievement, though Tim Holmes's vividly coloured landscapes, stimulated by Richard Burns's music, were highly captivating. Yet though the weekend also featured a promising demonstration of Braunarts's interactive "3D Music", with "creative direction" by Gabi Braun and music by Sam Hayden, there was continued feeling of too much playing safe with well-tried compositional models. And I continue to wonder whether it's right, when unknown composers must be queuing up for such opportunities, to include established, if still young figures such as Stuart MacRae, or those who have already had much Sinfonietta exposure. There was also surprisingly little music by women.

As we listened in the foyer, surrounded by Sinfonietta soloists before the somewhat disappointing final concert, to the melodious, somewhat Sixties sounds of Tim Parkinson's "untitled (winter 2002)", I reflected on how the state of composition in this country might have turned out if this ensemble had been prepared to take such risks 30 years ago. Perhaps much less of the more mainstream, predictable stuff which the Sinfonietta feels obliged to offer on these occasions might ever have been written.

'The State of the Nation: Mixing It', with Simon Fisher Turner, Lepke B and Jody Talbot, will be broadcast next Sunday on Radio 3 at 11pm

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