London Sinfonietta/Markus Stenz Queen Elizabeth Hall
London Sinfonietta/Markus Stenz Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Saturday saw the 13th anniversary of the London Sinfonietta's debut concert in 1968, which famously included the premiere of John Tavener's The Whale. And the day was accordingly given over, first, to "Whale of a Time!" workshops and then to an evening benefit gala. In between was a round-table discussion led by the pianist Paul Crossley.

The concert itself, conducted by Markus Stenz, got off to a good start - certainly in terms of looking forward to the Sinfonietta's future - with five short pieces by British composers in their early twenties, a project supervised by George Benjamin. Oscar Bettison, Rachel Leach, Stuart McRae, Joseph Phibbs and Huw Watkins provided compositions notable for their technical skills, some attempting to leaven the unexpected Sinfonietta Seriousness with a vernacular spin.

From these pieces, I'd say that McRae and Watkins - both of whom used the 15-piece line-up well, showing a keen ear for timbre, and demonstrated real expertise in sustaining a structure - should be offered Sinfonietta commissions, perhaps for a couple of years ahead.

Fifty this year, Jonathan Lloyd has built a whole career on putting a vernacular spin on Modernist resources. This sometimes catapults him into structural as well as stylistic difficulties; and so it proved here, as he offered a 25-minute extension to a 10-minute piece written in 1980- 81. Toward the Whitening Dawn ... and Beyond for two choral groups and small orchestra deploys the specially-permitted unusual instrumental resources imaginatively but is compromised by banality of content and a ramshackle, unconvincing structure. The London Sinfonietta Voices seemed embarrassed by Lloyd's more theatrical requirements, which didn't help.

The concluding performance of The Whale had its awkwardness too, and in truth the work also finds it hard to sustain a 35-minute structure. One can forgive both composer and performers an awful lot, however, for personifying Sixties exuberance and general off-the-wallness with such imagination and panache, in a work which puts spins of all kinds on notions dating from a time when "one of every instrument" seemed a terminally ungroovy concept. The newcaster Trevor McDonald read the famous opening encyclopaedia entry a trifle anxiously, Patricia Bardon and Peter Sidhom were the admirable vocal soloists, and members of what the late Michal Vyner, for many years the ensemble's artistic director, called the Sinfonietta "family" had fun with their magaphones from seats amidst the capacity audience.

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