London Sinfonietta/State of the Nation Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
London Sinfonietta/State of the Nation

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Whether or not composition can be taught is among the oldest questions in the musical book. Whatever the answer, however, composers can certainly be encouraged, and that's what the London Sinfonietta gets up to with its State of the Nation events. Last Saturday's ran workshops and foyer activities with amateurs, hosted by the Sinfonietta and Society for the Promotion of New Music. It was capped in the evening by a concert featuring four pieces given their world premieres.

All this is badly needed support for young composers, whose lives contain challenges unique to our times. "Why?" the question composers asked of their work in the left-wing 1960s and 1970s, has changed to "how?" In our Silver Age of gifted artists, in what direction should composers apply their abundant talent?

Saturday evening's concert revealed no answers, yet gave a positive spin on current progress. Style, for its featured composers, was a central issue, and one to be explored without compromise, in the contest of modern masters. Kenneth Hesketh's Three Movements from Theatrum, conducted by Markus Stenz, was a case in point. Inspired by medieval sources, its composer had taken his cue to write various kinds of music: introductory, jesting and balletic. Invention there was in plenty, and related in part to familiar models. Yet the command of time he brought to this substance was entirely his own. In its detailed motion, each of the movements was packed with surprises. The climaxes came in memorable endings, gripping gestures that caught you unawares.

Craw, by Alwynne Pritchard, refreshed the palate with silence and delicate atonality a la Weber. For her meaning she looked to Ted Hughes's Crow collection, and a long-held gurgling chord at one point did suggest an object in the throat. Mostly, however, the writing was cool and lucid, like frosted flowers in morning sunlight.

John Lunn, like Hesketh, related his work Over Night to an oft-used illustrative theme: the nocturnal city, with soloist who acts as commanding centre. Violinist Clio Gould wove her way through textures redolent of 1950s jazz. The diversity of these pieces was complemented by Roderick Watkins's Red Light and Martyn Harry's Diversity Unbuttoned, sending ideas on opposite trajectories, yet together suggestive of patterns for the future. The result was impressive. Like Watkins, Harry looked to continental models, and was rewarded.

In the context of an inward-looking month for British music, that was the lesson of the day. For artists, when familiar comforts beckon, the best thing to do is look outwards.

Nicholas Williams