People have been asking when the credit crunch will hit the arts. At Thursday’s concert it seemed to have arrived. Shortly before the end the lights went out, plunging the hall into darkness. The orchestra kept playing until back-up lights came on, but for a while the end seemed nigh.

The Philharmonia Orchestra says the future looks bright. Fortified by an Arts Council “Sustain” grant – an award given to organisations facing the loss of corporate sponsorship in the downturn – its financial stability has increased and its European residencies should help, especially if sterling continues to fall.

A double programme on Thursday focused on Magnus Lindberg. The early evening “Music of Today” concert featured two of his chamber works – Coyote Blues (1993) and Engine (1996) – reminding us what an inventor of coruscating sounds this Finnish composer is. High wind timbres and sparkling percussion cut through the air, expertly played by a small group of Philharmonia musicians under Diego Masson.

That was the Lindberg we know. But the main evening concert offered a different picture: Graffiti, which received its premiere in Helsinki this year, is a large-scale choral work, which sets texts light-hearted and lewd scribbled on the walls of Pompeii. From the growling bassoons rumbling up from the depths at the start this is a new departure. The music is grand, opulent, and alongside the expected modernisms come flashes of the Russian Romantics, Carl Orff and even the soundtracks of those 1950s Hollywood epics where the actors strut around in togas and strangely modern hairstyles. The score is often atmospheric, sometimes beautiful, but rarely the product of an individual voice – the last thing one expected of Lindberg. The Philharmonia Voices dealt with its choral difficulties impressively.

4 star rating

On either side Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra’s principal conductor, placed modern classics. Janácek’s Sinfonietta and Stravinsky’s complete Firebird received razor-sharp performances, forsaking their traditional folk backgrounds in favour of international modernist gleam. Salonen and the Philharmonia have more adventurous programmes to come – as long as the Southbank Centre’s lights stay on.

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