Philip Venables’ new piece was the London Sinfonietta’s contribution to events marking the reopening of Queen Elizabeth Hall, in London. But it is a huge disappointment, coming after the 2016 premiere of the opera 4.48 Psychosis, which identified Venables as a new distinctive voice in British music, as well as his fiercely effective work Illusions, introduced at the Hull New Music Biennial last summer.
“A concert work like no other” promised the Sinfonietta’s pre-concert publicity, and The Gender Agenda, which was followed by a screening of Illusions, is certainly that. It’s designed as a parody TV gameshow, with contestants from the audience setting challenges on the subject of gender identity and prejudice. The besequinned “host” is the performance artist David Hoyle (he’s also the on-screen protagonist of Illusions), but there is too much of him and too little of Venables’ own music, which is mostly confined to the spoof commercial breaks and contrasts with the muzak punctuating the show itself.
The trouble is that it isn’t funny or sharply satirical enough. The contestants’ tasks are utterly feeble, what they say about gender issues comes across as platitudinous and, fatally, the whole thing is just not slick enough – a parody needs to have at least some of the glitz of the thing it’s attacking. Proportions are all over the place, too. Hoyle’s banter with the audience (when there’s no music at all) goes on far too long, while conductor Jessica Cottis, Sinfonietta musicians and amateur chorus Sprechchor simply sit there. When the show does start, it all seems an enormous waste of time and resources.
Venables’ commission is shared with Ensemble Modern, and the Remix and Asko | Schönberg ensembles; radical reworking is needed before audiences in Frankfurt, Porto and Amsterdam see it.