Introducing Classical Music

The London Sinfonietta: A Guided Tour of 20th-Century Music
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: The Night Shift

11 September, Kings Place

An all-inclusive survey of 20th-century classical music is obviously not achievable in an hour, but the whetting of a new audience’s appetite certainly is. Friday night’s concert by the London Sinfonietta at Kings Place was aimed at curious new listeners for a repertoire often considered difficult and inaccessible. Yet with only four members from this contemporary music ensemble, the survey was restricted not only by its short duration but also by scale. Massive works of the 20th century were absent. There would be no Rite of Spring or L’après-midi d’un faune. Instead, this survey would consist exclusively of 20th-century chamber works.

The London Sinfonietta | © Kevin Leighton

The London Sinfonietta | © Kevin Leighton

With only an hour to fit in works by 11 major composers, plus an introduction in between, each piece could only last a few minutes. But this compactness gave the concert a special immediacy. It demanded that the audience really listened. A John Cage quotation preceding Pierre Boulez’s Anthemes for Solo Violin and Cage’s Four6 was particularly instructing: ‘what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating’. Listening to ‘difficult’ works like Boulez’s and Cage’s can be rewarding. You just have to really listen. Let go of your desire for melody, and allow yourself to be fascinated by sounds that you have never heard before.

The London Sinfonietta was not so brash as to throw its audience immediately into hard-core modernism, however. Claude Debussy’s still tuneful Violes for piano eased us into the 20th century. Following this with the final movement from Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke was inspired. The tuneful Parisian Debussy and the atonal (or tuneless) Viennese Schoenberg sometimes seem worlds apart. But in pairing these works together you heard their similarities. Both have a beautiful sparseness that allows you to indulge in the piano’s resonance.

Most astonishing was the breadth of expression that the four players were capable of within only an hour. Scott Lygate on clarinet was particularly versatile in Igor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet. Not only did he produce a lovely rich tone in this awkward to play piece, he also switched quickly from tranquillity, to athletic urgency and to upbeat jolliness. Joined by Clio Gould on violin for the first movement of Béla Bartók’s Contrasts, they combined seamlessly. There unison passages were especially striking. Rather than sounding like two separate instruments, they came together as a single but multifaceted voice. This continued into Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Joined now by the whole ensemble, the frantic vibrato from Gould and Tim Gill on cello during unison passages made for an incredibly intensity. Together the ensemble found the balance between the seventh movement’s straining lament and violent chaos.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment | © Joe Plommer

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment | © Joe Plommer

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have a different approach to enticing new audiences to classical music with their series of concerts The Night Shift. Since 2006, the OAE have been experimenting with putting classical music in more informal settings where chatting, clapping and drinking are all acceptable.

Three members of the OAE presented their latest edition of The Night Shift, also at King’s Place on Friday night. Unfortunately the evening did not achieve the atmosphere I imagine the OAE were hoping for. The audience was both too small and too middle-class to create an exciting buzz. Whilst The Night Shift’s relaxed attitude probably draws people who otherwise find concert hall etiquette too stifling, I am not convinced that it wins over any new die-hard fans. The Night Shift invites its audience to enjoy classical music, and admittedly there is nothing wrong with that. But the London Sinfonietta’s concert invited its audience to explore further. Classical music is, of course, to be enjoyed. But it is most rewarding when we are engaged with it.

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