London Sinfonietta: Yet Unheard

Classical livestreams have proliferated like wildfire in this very unusual year. Even for the committed music fan, it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s happening. But nonetheless, I was surprised to see that a recent concert by London Sinfonietta has gathered relatively little attention.

Conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni, Yet Unheard is a programme of music by emerging and established black composers. And even laying aside its diversity work – important as that is – this is a great example of how to showcase contemporary music in a slick streaming experience.

There are six pieces, none longer than fifteen minutes – a series of colourful bursts from a range of perspectives, each plugged in to the contemporary world and its wider musical traditions. Several works, we are told, feature written-out improvisations. A few deal with recent themes around #BlackLivesMatter.

Jason Yarde’s Rude Awakening!, arranged by Kerry Yong, eases us in with lush jazz harmonies, before breaking into spiky rhythms. The late-romantic glow in the woodwind and brass writing reminded me of Bax in his more langurous moments. Two songs from Leila Adu-Gilmore’s Freedom Suite follow, sung with perfect clarity by Elaine Mitchener, a co-curator of the programme. The minimalist textures and judicious splashes of colour here create a musing, dreamlike quality.

At times Howard Blake’s score for The Snowman comes to mind. But these lyrics are no fairytale: ‘send your kids to school in a hoodie, they won’t wind up in a body bag’ we hear in Negative Space, a song written after the killing of Trayvon Martin. This disarmingly direct line is aimed at white people, and about white privilege. It’s uncomfortable to hear – and rightly so.

Hannah Kendall’s Verdala is named after a ship that transported the British West Indian Regiment during WW1 – a reminder that Carribean migration didn’t start with Windrush. Short, hard-edged motifs mingle and rub against each other in an energetic community of sound. And if that might reflect the bustle of a crowded ship, Tania León’s Indígena is inspired by the energy of Latin-American carnivals. The unsettled, fragmented opening takes a bit of time to get into the party mood, but it culminates with exuberant solos for the trumpet.

If I’m honest, contemporary classical music can sometimes be hard work. At its worst – disorienting, tediously abrasive, or barely audible – it feels like a niche club I don’t belong in. So I consider it a great compliment that this programme, spanning an array of styles and approaches, felt very easy to listen to. There is always something compelling and interesting to latch on to in these works.

The most expansive piece is by another co-curator: George Lewis’s Assemblage. Talking to camera, he describes its playful, freewheeling aesthetic, and tells us to simply ‘get on the bus, don’t worry about where it’s going’. It’s dense, fluid and intricate, an intriguing Bizarro World of sound. But the intensity is dialled back for the last work on the programme – Sanctum by Courtney Bryan.

This introspective piece is concerned with ‘the solace found in the midst of persecution and tribulation’. Inspired by preaching traditions, Bryan uses brooding chords and bluesy lines, but she also deploys a range of topical sound recordings, including chants from the Ferguson protests, and the voice of Marlene Pinnock, an African-American woman whose assault by a highway officer in 2014 was caught on camera.

Further to this, a recording of laboured breathing, touchingly intimate and human, reminds us of the death of Eric Garner, whose words ‘I can’t breathe’ have become a #BlackLivesMatter slogan.

Implanting sounds is a simple tool but a fitting one, given that the proliferation of smartphone technology has played such an important role in bringing police brutality to public attention. It makes for a solemn, thought-provoking end to the programme, and the question inevitably hangs in the air: for how much longer is this going to keep happening?

Sadly, I write this as a deportation flight from the UK to Jamaica is due to take place. Our Windrush scandal is very much still ongoing, so we in Britain cannot dismiss state racism as an American problem either.

All considered, Yet Unheard is an important concert, brilliantly realised by Kaziboni and London Sinfonietta. It shows the rich rewards of putting a diversity of voices to the fore – pandemic or no pandemic.

My only disappointment is that six days after its premiere on YouTube it still has under 500 views. By comparison, a recent LSO livestream uploaded only two nights ago already has well over 2000. I know there’s a lot to take in at the moment, but I thoroughly recommend you get watching. And as is now commonly the way in this newly distanced world, you can donate to support London Sinfonietta too.

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