New music: Cambridge New Music Players Clerkenwell London Sinfonietta RFH2, London

"Old 'new music' is dead!'' It may not quite have the ring of "Schoenberg is dead'', but Priti Paintal, former scourge of the Arts Council's Music Panel, was trying to make the point that there is new new music that people like to listen to (to her ears, improvised, probably ethnic) and old new music (sterile, clinical, modernist) that people hate, but still listen to. Curiously, massive public subsidies are thrown towards the hated kind, while the gentle improvisers are left out in the cold.

As part of a "let's look at how we treat new music" powwow organised by the Arts Council recently, this was stirring stuff. But two concerts of "old" new music last week showed how much muddier the waters really are.

The Cambridge New Music Players' "All Octets" concert for the Clerkenwell Music Series on Thursday took place under desperate conditions: virtually no subsidy and a Basilica-type church in an Islington backwater with a reverberation equal to that of St Paul's. Small wonder the audience was tiny.

British music written since 1933 showed convincingly that British composers will (largely) not be "schooled". Robin Holloway's Serenade in C, which caused such shock-waves in the 1970s with its lush, tonal exuberance, today magnificently argues its own case, especially when so well played. Adrian Jack's Zigzag (a premiere) drew on the Klezmer tradition, with Neyrire Ashworth, the CNMP's stunning clarinettist, throwing in cheerful squeals against oscillating textures. Jack, somewhat defensively, states that if the effect is a bit kitsch, he doesn't mind. And nor he should, becaue the piece oozes integrity. As did Mark-Anthony Turnage's The Silence, a work brooding with suppressed energy, and Howard Ferguson's Octet, a slight piece, skilfully written.

But with Claude Lenners' Found in a bottle, Paintal's jibe came thundering back. This was the "old" new music - tam-tams, textural glissandi, bowed music-stands, disintegrating dissonances - all gesture, no shape, hideously "correct".

Such correctness re-emerged in a London Sinfonietta "French Connection" concert on Saturday in an RFH2 full of "new music groupies". Gerard Grisey's Le temps et l'ecume was so studded with "old" new music cliches that it spelt French indulgence, Ircam-style, rather than anything truly new. Perhaps it was chosen by George Benjamin (conducting, and a fellow Ircam inmate) to reflect the difference between "connected" composers: Benjamin's new Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra did achieve individuality through risk (if nothing compared to Holloway or Turnage) - a theatrically gesturing cor anglais and a rasping contrabassoon against luminous backgrounds.

But works by Messiaen and Varese, comfortably convincing in brilliant performances, spelt "new" new music, music to enjoy, even if some recent Elliott Carter, somewhat unevenly sung by Lucy Shelton in a pre-concert concert, felt like very "old" new music, which of course it is.


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