From hit-and-miss to wedded bliss

Tue, Oct 23, 2012, 01:00

THREE QUAINTLY imposing titles of music by William Vincent Wallace – Invitation polka, Victorie Mazurka and The Night Winds: Nocturne for the Piano Forte – conjured up visions of aspidistras and decorously draped piano legs.

 And the pieces proved every inch as Victorian as anticipated in two programmes given by pianists Rosemary Tuck and Una Hunt at a National Concert Hall festival day celebrating the bicentenary of Wallace, the Waterford-born composer of Maritana and much else besides.

Tuck and Wallace share a Sydney connection: it is her home city, and it is where he founded the colony’s first music academy, in 1836. His period as the “Australian Paganini” was to be shortlived, and the salon repertoire sampled in Tuck’s lunchtime recital, Chopinesque, dates from subsequent sojourns in London and New York. This showy music stands or falls by its decorative detail, and it was a pity the fluency and bravura of Tuck’s recordings of it evaded her on this occasion.

Una Hunt’s playing showed greater conviction. She is the festival’s artistic director, and multitasked at the evening gala concert as accompanist, soloist and duettist with Tuck, in a monster set of variations for two pianos. But the freshest moments came courtesy of baritone Matthew Sprange and mezzo soprano Máire Flavin, in parlour songs, operatic numbers, and The Seasons, a cycle of four canzonets that suggested, more than anything else in the day’s music, the welcome influence of Schumann.

* Conductor Kenneth Montgomery has been at the helm for some of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s most noteworthy Beethoven performances in recent seasons, and a highly charged account of the iconic Symphony No 5 proved no exception. Montgomery’s preferred configuration of the strings – with cellos in the middle and second violins on the right – allowed the woodwinds’ shapely phrasing to come shining through. The strings kept up a keen, almost vibrato-free focus; the forthright brass playing was spick and span.

Along with all this colour and clarity went a whiff or two of cheeky articulation in the scherzo, and intriguing, wiry effects in the pianissimo no-man’s land bordering the finale. The whole symphony, not excluding the Andante, sounded as if Beethoven had marked it Vivace.

Verdi’s choral-orchestral Stabat mater and Te Deum may have seemed unlikely candidates for similarly neoclassical treatment, but the results were purposeful realisations of these amorphous, otherworldly creations. There was a sense, too, of seemingly effortless integration between the orchestra and the 116 voices of the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir.

For the two a cappella items making up Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces, Montgomery ceded the podium to the newly appointed chorus master Mark Hindley. The fiendishly chromatic Ave Maria offered fewer luxuries in terms of sheer choral sound than did the setting for women’s voices of Laudi alla Vergine Maria. Still, going at all times with Hindley’s flow, the singers took both pieces in their collective stride.

* American composer Eric Whitacre was in town as a guest of the Dublin University Philosophical Society, speaking about his infectious outlook on the choral experience, and offering the student audience a few insights into why they can’t get enough of his music. In the partsongs Lux Aurumque and Sleep (both of them memorised), Trinity College Singers surrendered to the suave spell of his direction.

Whitacre made light of his training at the Juilliard, emphasising instead his spectacular conversion to choral singing when, as a freshman student in Nevada, he still couldn’t read music notation and wanted to become a rock star. It was as a rank-and-file choir member that he acquired a taste for poignant dissonances, and sensed he, too, could use them to cast “a shower of shivers round the room”.

* Thrills of an entirely different order were on offer from the National Chamber Choir and its principal conductor Paul Hillier. For a gentle half-hour, the Hymns and Variations by seminal US avant gardist John Cage treated two pieces by Yankee tunesmith William Billings to a kind of musical join-the-dots exercise in reverse, albeit with most of the dots randomly omitted.

That, however, was only the choral background to a set of extraneous events that Cage calmly invites people to consider as music: a man seated at a table who can’t help monkeying around; a lady reading out a sardonic programme note; and someone else chopping up a little fruit and veg. Around the ninth of the 10 variations, a bowl of sliced carrots came my way, and with a strange kind of ecstasy the understanding dawned that I was munching through my own personal percussion part.

Cage’s serene challenges paved an ideal way for an exciting and thoroughly entertaining NCC premiere. Irish composer Jennifer Walshe describes The White Noisery as “a piece about the tension between urgency and meaning”: my impression was of a post-ritualistic liturgy honouring the deities of cyberspace.

The 10 movements form a series of individualised conceptual tableaux mixing voices, electronics, and physical actions.

Whether the format is purely verbal (a litany-like exchange of two spoken choruses), purely musical (a ceremonial interlude for recorder quartet), or something in between, the essence is of vibrant, compelling polyphony.

* Something similar might be said of the remarkable work given at the Hugh Lane Gallery by the Toronto-based company Queen of Puddings Music Theatre. But here the emphasis was less on concept than on powerful lyricism.

The idea for a 50-minute opera for six female voices came from the company’s artistic directors, John Hess and Dáirine Ní Mheadhra.

The choice of subject – a young bride on the eve of her marriage – fell to Canadian-Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic. To tell this story in the folk idioms of her Slavic mother-tongue was to invite comparisons with Stravinsky’s Les noces, but there’s no doubting Svadba – Wedding lays the latter composer’s ghost to rest.

Supported only by light percussion and a few toy instruments, this exuberant concert performance by Ní Mheadhra and her ingenious singers was an engrossing and unforgettable model of technical and emotional exactitude.

Michael Dervan is on leave

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