Britten Sinfonia, Barbican, London

The past and the future are as one in concerts by the Britten Sinfonia. As its regular audiences know, the orchestra thinks nothing of programming Purcell alongside the latest piece by Nico Muhly, or Bach alongside James MacMillan, and it is this spirit of adventure that has won it a reputation as one of the UK’s most forward-thinking musical ensembles.

There were no surprises on that score at the weekend. But in this concert it was the Britten Sinfonia’s own past and future that were the main focus: the celebratory programme marked both the start of the orchestra’s important new relationship as an Associate Ensemble at the Barbican and its 20th anniversary.

Looking back over 20 years of activity was never going to be easy. What to put in, what to leave out? Like a party where everybody wants a turn to sing and dance, this special birthday concert grew in size to the point where more definitely meant less – even if the Britten Sinfonia did play its favourite card of juxtaposing the familiar and the novel several times over.

There was Purcell’s anthem Hear my Prayer, O Lord, included to showcase the recently formed Britten Sinfonia Voices, which led into Looking Forward, a new work by Muhly that takes fragments of the Purcell and wraps them in a disorientating, modern orchestral atmosphere – intermittently potent, though in the end neither old nor new managed to prevail. Pianist Joanna MacGregor characteristically followed Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.5 with her arrangements of 12 pieces by Louis “Moondog” Hardin, ending the evening with a welcome rush of adrenaline. In between, there was One, a short new piece by MacMillan (simple, elegiac), a spot of improvisation from Pekka Kuusisto (regrettably one item too many), and Britten’s Les Illuminations, expressively sung by Mark Padmore but with a sometimes eccentric accompaniment.

Bizarrely, the most striking item was also the most familiar: Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony in a super-bright, edgy performance which showed that the Britten Sinfonia has not just a style, but also a sound of its own. Next to come is Max Richter’s take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a Barbican commission, on Wednesday, which should realign the orchestra back on its adventurous trajectory.

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