A celebration, and a weak sense of a classical community

Nadine Sierra was in a class of her own in the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition. photograph: alan betson

Nadine Sierra was in a class of her own in the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition. photograph: alan betson

Tue, Feb 5, 2013, 00:00

Composer Raymond Deane, who turned 60 last month, is not what you would call an easy man. His political activity alone would make that clear, particularly his involvement with the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and the media-savvy way in which he set about promoting an artistic boycott of Israel.

His relationship with the musical establishment has not always been easy, either. When I edited the music magazines SoundPost and Music Ireland, his contributions (he was a columnist in SoundPost) provoked strong reactions and many letters of complaint. And, for instance, when he won an RTÉ competition to write an orchestral work in celebration of the Dublin Millennium in 1988, he wrote Thresholds, “a kind of caoineadh”, explaining that “neither the sad history of our city nor its less than illustrious present condition would be honestly evoked by fanfares of jubilation”.

For three and a half hours on Saturday afternoon, his life and work were celebrated at St Ann’s Church on Dawson Street, Dublin. There were reminiscences from fellow-composer Roger Doyle (who explained that he gave up smoking at the same time that Deane gave up drinking), a thoughtful presentation by musicologist Mark Fitzgerald and a panel discussion with the Contemporary Music Centre’s Jonathan Grimes, librettist Gavin Kostick and the composer about the opera The Alma Fetish (the subject matter was Mahler’s widow Alma, her affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka, and the life-size doll he had made of her).

There was also a recorded extract of the score (conducted by Wide Open Opera’s Fergus Sheil, who will conduct the concert premiere in September), and performances by staff members of the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama of a selection of works written between 1970 and 1981.

The earliest piece was the piano solo Orphic Piece IV, played by the composer himself. It’s got an obsessive, recursive character, as if it’s dealing with ideas on the wild side of Scriabin that he just couldn’t shake out of his head. In his early years, Deane was concerned to avoid what, if I remember correctly, he used to call the “tonal/atonal dichotomy”. His works from this time abound in ambiguity and ambivalence. They exploit the juxtaposition of implacability and agitation, and delight in open-ended endings.

It was fascinating to hear so many of them in such fine performances in one session. The sequence before the Orphic Piece was: Four Inscriptions (1973) for harpsichord; Equivoke (1972) for flute, horn, cello, piano and organ; Embers (1973) for string quartet; Aliens (1971-72) for clarinet, trombone, viola, organ and harpsichord; and the String Quartet No 1 (Silhouettes, 1981), which received its first performance.

The best of them, Equivoke and Embers, gave the impression of someone who had absorbed the messages of Erik Satie and Ives’s The Unanswered Question and was, after a half century and more, taking up where they had left off.

There are further Deane celebrations today (at the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s lunchtime Horizons concert) and at the New Music Dublin festival, which runs over the first weekend in March. That new festival is a joint venture between the Arts Council, RTÉ, the National Concert Hall, and the Contemporary Music Centre.

Curiously, though, the bigwigs from the Arts Council, RTÉ, the NCH and Wide Open Opera were conspicuous on Saturday by their absence. The sense of community in the world of classical music in Ireland is extraordinarily weak.

It’s as if the understanding that we are all in this together has yet to dawn, and the behaviour instead is based on the principle of every man for himself.

Last Tuesday’s NSOHorizons concert, programmed by Jonathan Nangle (born 1981) was packed with schoolchildren. As well as being a composer, Nangle is a teacher, with posts at Wesley College and the Royal Irish Academy of Music. His pre-concert conversation with Evonne Ferguson showed him to be a frank and engaging personality, as he talked about his years in the choir of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, the fact that he likes to write his pieces in public libraries, and that he writes harmony first, not melodies.

The three pieces that Gavin Maloney conducted – Damaging My Calm, Now is night come quietly (both premières), and Then falls thy Shadow – all sounded like the work of a man who likes chords, and revels in orchestral sonority, favouring a flavour that seemed somehow French.

Nangle chose Donal Sarsfield’s Between Wood and Water to open the programme. But the combination of pre-recorded sounds and blunt, almost rudimentary orchestral gestures, completely failed to gel on this occasion.

Wednesday’s NCH debutby Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky was a largely disappointing affair. Yes, Lugansky has a big technique, and enviable stamina. But his playing was mostly like writing that stays on the page. He was best in the freshness he brought to his opening item, Janacek’s extraordinarily evocative In the Mists. But in Liszt (Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este II and Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este,), Wagner arranged by Liszt (Isoldens Liebestod) and Rachmaninov’s rarely-heard First Sonata, the music-making was peculiarly one-dimensional. It wasn’t until the group of three encores – one of Medtner’s Forgotten Melodies, an étude by Rachmaninov, and Rachmaninov’s arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – that Lugansky reminded us why he is a musician to be reckoned with.

Music competitions arepretty brutal affairs, not least to the unsuccessful performers. The jury of the Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition, which concluded last Thursday, ditched the best-known Irish entrant, soprano Claudio Boyle, in the first round. Other well-known singers – Gabriela Istoc, Katy Kelly, Rachel Kelly, Sarah Power – disappeared before the final cut, too. Baritone Benjamin Russell, who took fifth prize in 2010, didn’t get past the semi-final this time around.

In the event there were two Irish singers in the finals, soprano Aoife Miskelly and an impressive newcomer, mezzo-soprano Gemma Ní Bhriain, along with baritones from Poland (Szymon Komasa) and Korea (Insu Hwang), a tenor from New Zealand (Stephen Chambers) and a soprano from the US (Nadine Sierra).

Followers of the full competition that I spoke to seemed to have their mind made up early on. When the winner sang in the first round, they said, the winning quality was evident straight away. That’s certainly how it was in the finals. And I don’t think there was any serious doubt about who the popular winner would be.

The jury concurred, and gave the top prize to Nadine Sierra. She’s one of those singers who makes her art seem effortless. The voice is clear as a mountain spring, and the words come across as if she were speaking. She can deliver vocal gymnastics, and also spin out a filament of tone on a high note for longer than seems physically plausible. She’s a communicative singer, who knows how to engage her listeners fully on her own terms. On Thursday, she was simply in a class of her own.

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