Classical LONDON MUSICI St John's Smith Square
Click to follow
The chamber orchestra London Musici has existed, or rather flourished, since its conductor Mark Stephenson founded it in 1988. Last year they became house orchestra to the Rambert Dance Company and they now have a policy of bringing dance into the concert hall, which complements the long-established pattern of new music reaching a dance audience.

Last Wednesday, they put on an unusual, even extravagant, programme at St John's Smith Square under the banner Music, Song and Dance. It ended with a commission by one of their three associate composers, Adam Gorb, in which the musicians were ranged across the back of the stage while dancers took it over. Gorb's Kol Simcha, or Voice of Celebration, is a suite of seven continuous movements based partly on East European Jewish dance music, with a Sephardic wedding melody to start and a central arrangement of the lament, El Mole Rachamin (God full of compassion). It's scored for the traditional Yiddish band of nine musicians (known as Klezmerim), among whom the soulfully swooping clarinet of Merlin Shepherd and dizzy violin of Marianne Olyver shone brilliantly, as to the manner born. Gorb says he was helped and guided by Shepherd in researching his folk sources, and it's rather hard to comment on his own input. I think I would rather have had more of the real thing, which seemed rather diluted.

Didy Veldman's choreography wasn't at all ethnic, but angular and a bit confrontational. Arranged for two heterosexual pairs before the two men engaged in a very athletic fight and ended up grinning at each other, followed by a pale shadow of the same by the two women, the sexual subtext seemed distinctly corny, but at least some of the imagery, now geometrical, now drawn from the world of insects, was surprising.

Roussel's dry but bracing Sinfonietta opened the concert, with Madeleine Mitchell as guest leader. The other guest leader, Jagdish Mistry (late of the Mistry Quartet), was then soloist in H K Gruber's Concerto No 2, entitled Nebelsteinmusik, for reasons to do with Gruber's teacher, Gottfried von Einem, the dedicatee. The sources of the four mildly jazzy movements stem either from Einem's own music or music he liked. There seemed only a glimmer of irony in this amiable, good-natured work, and just enough humour to keep its nostalgic atmosphere from becoming oppressive, but the get-up-and-go syncopations of the finale, like a slick score for a road movie, made it a winner.

The slightly incongruous central work was Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, arranged by Reinbert de Leeuw for the sort of reduced forces available to Schoenberg's pioneering Society for Private Musical Performances, which aimed to break the ice of "unplayable" new music for committed audiences (neither applause nor critics were allowed).

The arrangement for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, five strings, piano and harmonium certainly sounded convincing, although the piano was wont to bite off chunks only to cast them aside. What wasn't so compelling was the curious blandness of the performance.

Much of that was due to the singing of Roderick Williams, whose baritone voice was warm and pleasing, but who did nothing to convey any depth of feeling, let alone the bitter grief behind these songs. Some blame, too, must attach to Mark Stephenson, who conducted everything else with immense vigour, but seemed strangely in awe of Mahler's music, and made little of the drama in the stormy closing song.