The London Sinfonietta's New Music Show

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For the last three years, the London Sinfonietta's annual commissioning program "Writing the Future" has paired relatively unknown composers—often from outside the realm of “classical music” proper—with the ensemble to produce a solo piece (and a possible chamber commission) during an intense and collaborative period under the tutelage of a composer mentor.

"New Music Show" yields the fruit of last year's program, featuring the talents of five British-based composers with backgrounds as disparate as the London club scene, noise rock and installation art as well as so-called classical music. The result is a testament not only to the considerable talents of the rising tide of new composers and the Sinfonietta's commitment to the future of new music, but also to the versatility of the musicians, who attack the music with a balance of taste and ferocity that makes even the difficult-to-digest passages (and there are a few) emotionally poignant and engaging. 

Interestingly, the album opens with the only commission not culled from "Writing the Future," Martin Suckling’s 5-part Candlebird which follows baritone Leigh Melrose on a meandering journey through a soundscape of droning strings, traces of Celtic folk, and flurries of birdlike interplay between the woodwinds and brass. At nearly 30 minutes, it's the album's longest cut by far and serves a virtual yield sign for those debating whether to opt in for the thorny, but enlightening listen ahead.

During Edmund Finnis’s Veneer, a detuned solo viola distills alternately sedate and skiddish thematic patterns from a slow-motion wave of natural harmonics. The Glow & Zig-Zag for solo horn, by Tim Hodgkinson (who founded the British avant-rock group Henry Cow with guitar master Fred Frith in the late '60s) progresses from quiet buzzes of air to schizophrenic freak-outs of flutter-tongued screams. In Zoetrope, electronic musician Isambard Kroustaliov employs a chamber ensemble to create a simultaneously static and kinetic sonic field of sustained chords and pointillistic interspersions.

"New Music Show" is a sometimes challenging, often exhilarating, and ultimately rewarding roller-coaster ride of a listen. This is music that wears the spirit of obscurity and experimentation on its sleeve, which is to say that if you're a sucker for the pretty, post-romantic/post-minimalist end of the contemporary classical music spectrum, this may or may not be your cup of tea. Regardless of how far you care to stretch your ears (and "New Music Show" is well worth the effort), the album is a refreshing reminder of the ever-changing permutations of backgrounds and influences brought to the table by the burgeoning ranks of new composers, and of the London Sinfonietta's vital role in the continued sustenance and development of their voices.