London Sinfonietta/Rundel Review – Premieres see the Orchestra Playing to its Strengths

Donatienne Michel-Dansac, right, in Skin Virtuoso range … Donatienne Michel-Dansac, right, in Skin. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

A50th-anniversary season for the London Sinfonietta that began brightly last autumn has rather fallen away in 2018. Its designated birthday concert in January was underwhelming, while its first appearance in the reopened Queen Elizabeth Hall last month for Philip Venables’ Gender Agenda was an epic disappointment. This programme, rather routinely conducted by Peter Rundel, was a better reminder of what the orchestra should be doing – a programme of four premieres, two of them first performances of Sinfonietta commissions, the other works new to the UK.

The brand-new pieces were very different in scale. Emma Wilde’s El Blanco Día is a brief clarinet solo alternating low-register pulsings with high trills and multiphonics. Charlotte Bray’s Reflections in Time, meanwhile, is an often playful exercise in instrumental couplings, a chain of duets that are sometimes conventional pairings, like violin and viola, but more often are totally unexpected, as when a cello joins with a bass clarinet, or contrabassoon with harp.

There was a sense of playfulness, too, in Unsuk Chin’s Cosmigimmicks from 2012, a “musical pantomime” in which a seven-piece ensemble creates a soundworld dominated by plucked sounds – the piano is prepared, the violin part is mostly pizzicato, while the trumpet has percussion to play. But the jokey surfaces wear thin, and only the last movement, Chin’s tribute to her teacher Ligeti, has any depth.

Rebecca Saunders’ Skin, written two years ago, is much harder to grasp. It’s a scena of sorts, which gives the solo soprano, Donatienne Michel-Dansac, a chance to display a virtuoso range of vocal effects against a minutely detailed instrumental backdrop. The text is mostly the composer’s own, with a brief, whispered extract from James Joyce’s Ulysses just before the end, though hardly a syllable was decipherable.


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