by Rachel Beaumont

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May I have my Adès less deconstructed: In Seven Days with the London Sinfonietta at the Southbank Centre

Adès Deconstructed: In Seven Days
London Sinfonietta and the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble
Royal Festival Hall
1 February 2017
Balcony C47, £15 – upgraded to Stalls G34

Like everyone, I love the London Sinfonietta. But I hesitate to follow them on their current drive to make the music they perform more accessible to a wider audience. Not because I disagree with the aim – of course not. I just wonder if there would be better ways to achieve it.

Wednesday's concert was a half-hour piece of music by Thomas Adès, preceded by a twenty-minute interval, preceded by a half-hour introduction to the Adès. Why was I there? Because I love the Sinfonietta, admire Adès and am not very good at reading concert summaries before buying a ticket. Why were none of my Sinfonietta-loving, Adès-admiring friends there? Because they actually read about what they are buying and realized a thirty-minute talk about a piece they already knew quite well was not really their cup of tea. The result was a very empty Royal Festival Hall. Boon in that I got to sit in an expensive seat for once, terrible shame in that a performance of a strong work from a leading composer by an excellent ensemble and some well-drilled students was heard by so few.

Of course, there are plenty of superb concerts that receive poor audiences and the RFH is possibly always going to be ambitious for a Sinfonietta concert. But still, the core audience was lost and the wider audience London Sinfonietta seeks did not seem to step into the breach.

But then, who would? Who would buy a not-cheap ticket for an evening show about a composer they were unfamiliar with, even if it did come with a preliminary talk? Who likes preliminary talks anyway? Perhaps that's harsh, perhaps lots of people get things from them – but, as with the Southbank Centre's otherwise excellent festival of 20th-century music in 2013, a lot of people stay away because of them.

The talk itself was, unsurprisingly, confused about what level it was aimed at. Presenter Zoë Martlew is good and clearly knows her stuff. She seemed more comfortable than her cohort Samuel West, who looked oddly abashed. No matter. There's lots that's interesting to say about In Seven Days, so where do you start? We had serialism introduced – fine. We had some rows pointed out – fine. Then we had a discussion of what 'horizontal' and 'vertical' mean in the context of music – ok… Then we had an explanation and demonstration of a chromatic scale, performed in a slow and careful solo by Rolf Hind. Is that necessary?

I'm not a fan of the upside-down structuring of information, but it seemed incredible to me that anyone there would benefit from an explanation of what a chromatic scale is. On the radio, in Radio 3's excellent 'Discovering Music', sounds sensible. In a school, absolutely. In a paid-for ticketed concert with only one piece on the programme, surely not. Add in some cringeworthy banter between Martlew and West and you have a very slow first half-hour to the concert.

The piece itself is not one of my favourites (even after an explanation of what it's all about). It's undeniably impressive, though, as were the performances by all involved, including rock-steady conductor Sian Edwards.

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