At a time when the streets of our cities fall into an uncomfortable silence, a concert bound together by the pulse, rhythm and clamour of urban life feels oddly nostalgic. But, wary of indulging too much in thoughts of ‘what might have been’, the London Sinfonietta assembled a varied programme of old and new in the unofficial ‘contemporary music Prom’ of the 2020 festival.

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Geoffrey Paterson and the London Sinfonietta
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Beginning with Philip Glass’ Façades, this shuffling short is certainly at the gentle end of the Sinfonietta’s vast range. Out of Glass’ misty smokescreen came music closer to our expectations: Julia Wolfe’s East Broadway for toy piano and (toy) boombox, originally written for the instrument’s standard-bearer Margaret Len Tang. Clíodna Shanahan, making her BBC Proms solo debut on a busy evening for the Sinfonietta’s keyboard players, brought out the piece’s violence through intense clusters and double-armed spreads, coming close to the timbral limitations of this most eccentric of instruments.

A quick transition brought us into the world of funk, with neon by British composer Tansy Davies. Davies is no stranger to the Sinfonietta and conductor Geoffrey Paterson, also making his Proms debut; they worked together on her stunning chamber opera Cave last year, for which she won an RPS Award in the process. Here, Davies fixes the nocturnal gaze on a different subject, in an exploration of her formative funk experiences. A piece made up of delicate, tight-knit grooves, this was one part of the evening that suffered from the physical distance between performers. Pre-Covid, neon would have totally suited the involved, intimate spacing used previous Sinfonietta gigs with saxophonist Marius Neset, where rhythm and groove could be physically felt. But alas, the combination of distance and a slightly jarring clavinet sound meant this promising piece felt a little stilted in performance.

Rhythm is a foundational component of the late American composer Conlon Nancarrow’s Suite for Player Piano, though in eliminating the human element of performance in writing for pianola, this almost ceases to be a concern. Yvar Mikhashoff’s arrangements flip Nancarrow’s ideals on their head, creating two humorous little escapades scored for chamber orchestra. Of the pair heard here this evening, #9 is a more combustible presence, but together they form a charming duo, excellently executed by the amassed forces of the Sinfonietta.

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Jonathan Davies
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Edmund Finnis’ recent works The Centre Is Everywhere (for Manchester Collective) and The Air, Turning (for BBC Scottish Symphony, released last year on NMC) can turn from melancholy to incision in an instant. The essence of this style was shown in the 2013 work heard this evening: in situ, a series of distorted perspectives on fragments of works by composers from Pérotin through to Rameau. Where Finnis aims for correspondence and conversation, Anna Meredith’s Axeman instead opts for healthy subversion – electronic guitar amp and distortion pedals moves the bumbling sound of the bassoon closer towards the lead guitar of Slash. Placed high up in the auditorium, Jonathan Davies’ performance had a touch of the Brian May on Buckingham Palace about it, but this was music to put a massive grin on your face – a remarkable piece, brilliant in conception and delivery.

The night built to Steve Reich’s City Life, described as “a tone poem with an apocalyptic end” by Patterson. Reich’s apocalyptic certainly isn’t as instrumentally arresting as other depictions, but the rich variety of Reich’s samples help make the ending something beyond instruments, a cumulative sonic melee. The samples in the final movement are taken from New York Fire Department’s correspondences during the 1993 bombing of city’s World Trade Center; thoughts of the recent tragedy in Beirut were not far away. 

City Life is a junction from the fixed tapes of Different Trains, giving performers more freedom to inject Reich’s static textures with modicums of new energy mid-performance. When these new gears were found, the London Sinfonietta and Patterson grooved excitedly, as if city life had just been switched back on.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.