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
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.