On Wednesday, Lygia O'Riordan certainly showed a distinctive style of conducting, and she managed the whole evening, except Sofia Gubaidulina's Last Words of Christ and two encores, without scores. She made a lot of sharp movements with her elbows and shoulders as her baton lashed the air, but her ferocious actions didn't translate into music of comparable passion. The playing was good but also a bit bland.
One of the cellists, Mark Friedman, joined the accordionist Owen Murray as co-soloist in Gubaidulina's all-too gruelling depiction of Christ's expiring moments. There was much semi-tonal groaning, and in the fifth movement the accordion sounded like nothing so much as an electric band saw grinding its way through a big block of wood, but Friedman and Murray seemed astonishingly precise and cool throughout their ordeals, and it must be said that the very unusual combination of these two instruments with strings is extraordinarily successful, even if some of the mystical imagery is nave.
After the interval came one of Mozart's neat little early Divertimenti, played in the creamy, old-fashioned way, rather lacking wit or charm. But the decisive test of the orchestra's qualities - or what O'Riordan and her leader, Pia Siirala, have made of them - was Tchaikovsky's Serenade. Ensemble XXI played this at its very first concert in 1989, so it would be fair to assume that by now the players would leave their mark on the work. Yet this was the least shaped performance imaginable: no one would have wanted to dance to the Waltz, and Tchaikovsky's normally very meaningful ditherings - those repeated notes at the end of lines, where the dipping, swirling melody seems to recover its balance - made no sense at all. Nor was there much romantic warmth in the Elegy or verve in the Finale. The programme notes billed the ending of the Serenade as the Ensemble's hymn, its prayer that it will be able to continue playing as a group. The prayer would deserve to be answered if only the orchestra made it more fervent.