The London Symphony Orchestra’s Futures series, supported by the Panufnik Composers’ Scheme, is an incubator for young talent. On Sunday it was showcased with remarkable brio, in a concert of music exclusively by living composers.

London Symphony Orchestra
© Mark Allan | LSO

Exceptional times call for exceptional commitment.The Barbican originally featured violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and François-Xavier Roth, who had to pull out owing to travel restrictions. Instead, Nicola Benedetti stepped in with a radiant new work from Mark Simpson; Ryan Wigglesworth took to the podium, learning five works in as many days. 

Charlie Piper’s Flēotan begins with a flash of light. Its title is an Old English word with two meanings: fleeting and floating. It is music of ephemeral elegance and sophistication, whistling with string harmonics and murmuring, searching inner parts. Just as we seem to approach a summit or moment of stability, the music changes course again, before a gleaming and climactic bang. 

Then came the textured machine music of Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s Fairtrade? – a scant three minutes of music. An illustration of the factory floor that makes cheap clothes, Fairtrade? begins with the clacking woodwind keys, the tapping of bows on strings, the rumble of a low piano and groan of low brass or double bass. Occasionally a single voice broke through the melée in moments of disarming, lyrical stillness - a whisper of clarinet or sigh of a solo cello. 

Ryan Wigglesworth
© Mark Allan | LSO

Besty Jolas followed with her Well Met Suite, a tricksy musical pantomime for string orchestra. This was a devious, slapstick delight – musicians tapped their music stands in mock applause for a particularly brilliant solo. It is gestural and instinctive, as if Anton Webern had reworked Haydn. In a cheeky third movement, walking bass gives way to stamping and slapping on the bodies of the instruments. Elsewhere it is translucent music of neoclassical poise and wit, cast in short movements that evaporate in elegant shimmers. 

George Stevenson’s Vanishing City – a world premiere – took us to the interval. It commemorates the Soviet attempt to camouflage the buildings of besieged Leningrad. Bells and harp clamour unexpectedly, reminding us of the city’s great religious architecture; more disturbed moments, with sudden piquant blasts of woodwind and percussion, felt apocalyptic.  

Mark Simpson’s Violin Concerto was the main event, composed for Nicola Benedetti. It has already received its premiere in an April broadcast, but this was its first outing with an audience. Broadcasts are all well and good – it sounded blistering enough when I watched it a month ago – but a concerto is all about the frisson of the technical tightrope walk and the virtuosic derring-do of live performance. Nicola Benedetti did not disappoint. Nor, for that matter, did Simpson.

Nicola Benedetti
© Mark Allan | LSO

Cast in five continuous movements, the concerto runs to three-quarters of an hour; it has an expansive and symphonic sweep that feels absorbing and serious. In this respect and its length it is heir to the most substantial violin concertos in the repertory, like Brahms or Elgar, though musically is its own thing. It opens with reverie, searching music that slides and seduces, with flashes of light and colour. The orchestration is extravagant, bursting with imagination and technique, as well as a certain cinematic swagger, especially in the second movement’s moments of full-blooded lyrical breakout. 

No tool is left untouched in Simpson’s search for intensity of colour and richness of detail. Sparkle comes spiky interjections from harp, glockenspiel and metal percussion, burnishing the gleam from the LSO brass; the dancing energies of the second and final movements get an adrenal hit from dashing timpani salvos and a battery of unpitched drums. The orchestral surface teems with life throughout, often with whispers or spots of light and shade: sul ponticello strings glisten above gongs and a tam-tam stroked with brushes. Simpson’s third movement, a love song, opens with a great falling sigh from the violin and grows through passionate fits and starts, with a desolate central recitative in the most raw lower reaches of the instrument. As an orchestrator, Simpson is surely unrivalled right now. 

This is remarkably open-hearted music, generous and humane in its communicate impulse, effusive and candid but never sentimental – something redoubled in Benedetti’s fierce, daring lyricism. The still of the accompanied fourth movement cadenza – a moment of inwardness, even loneliness – reprises music from the second movement, now tinged with weary experience and ghostly harmonics. 

But what fun too. The final movement, a wild tarantella, flies out of the gates with castanets, trumpets and drums, like Carmen put through a particle accelerator. A bravura ending saw Benedetti race up her fiddle with a flourish, leaving a moment of stunned, breathless silence. A rapt audience offered an equally rapturous response in four standing ovations. An instant classic is born – if anyone else dares to get their fingers round it. 

*****