Courtney Lewis’s code of conduct for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra

Getting the best out of an orchestra is a challenge, but the young Belfast conductor proves he can handle it with performances of Prokofiev, Borodin and Shostakovich

Belfast conductor Courtney Lewis stands out as someone who is prepared to go that extra mile in shaping the nuance and colour of the orchestra’s playing. Photograph: Travis Anderson

Belfast conductor Courtney Lewis stands out as someone who is prepared to go that extra mile in shaping the nuance and colour of the orchestra’s playing. Photograph: Travis Anderson

 

The work of an orchestra is never done. A few days’ rehearsal leads to a concert, and then it’s on to the next programme. The personnel doesn’t change much from week to week, but the programmes, conductors and soloists do. The long runs of opera and theatre only come into play when orchestras go on tour. And no soloist in his or her right mind would churn through the amount of repertoire that a busy orchestra takes in its stride in any one season.

For anyone interested in the internal dynamics of musical performance, an orchestral season is an endless source of fascination. With its mixture of fixed and shifting elements it’s almost like a laboratory set up for the investigation of musical behaviour. And it also has some of the fascination of the world of blind dates. It’s not the players who choose their musical partners, but management. And judgments of the outcomes vary enormously, depending on who you’re talking to.

In the bad old days before the opening of the National Concert Hall, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra was largely confined to acoustically unsuitable venues in Dublin, such as the St Francis Xavier Hall (as it then was) on the corner of Sherrard Street Upper and the North Circular Road, and the Gaiety Theatre.

As a student I used to despair at the cramped, congealed sound that was the norm in these venues. I remember being told that when Messiaen came to Dublin for the first Irish performance of his Turangalîla-Symphonie he made a remark about how unsuitable the rehearsal venue was. He was talking about the St Francis Xavier Hall, in which the actual performance duly took place.

 

Unorthodox layouts

The man who fought most consistently, and with considerable success, against the sound in those days was Proinnsías Ó Duinn. He had studied with Leopold Stokowski, one of the great orchestral experimenters of the 20th century, and he latched on to the fact that Stokowski’s curiosity had extended to a number of unorthodox platform layouts for his players. Ó Duinn took the woodwind players from their conventional place in the centre behind the strings (where they were frequently blotted out in both the SFX and the Gaiety), and placed them on his right at the front of the stage, where they could be clearly heard.

But reorganising the layout wasn’t the only way to reorganise the sound. I remember my astonishment when I heard the Czech-born German conductor Othmar Maga achieve a depth of perspective and a clarity of detail that I had never known to be possible in the SFX. And, sure enough, every year or two some guest would arrive who would make the apparently impossible possible.

Years later, I was struck by a barbed comment Virgil Thomson reported the great conductor Thomas Beecham to have made about the New York Philharmonic in the 1930s. The directors of the orchestra had asked the conductor and wit about the health of the organisation. His comment was that, although it contained many excellent players, it was not an orchestra. The most that Thomson himself seemed willing to concede was that it had always been “an assemblage of good players”, but it was let down by a lack of dependability that was in stark contrast to the solidity and teamwork of the orchestras of Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago “no matter who conducts them”.

Irish conductors have not been to the fore in getting the best out of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. It’s as if they feel constrained about being demanding enough. I’m not suggesting that’s actually the case, but it is how the performances sound. And it often sounds that way when the orchestra is in the hands of guests from abroad, too.

Belfast conductor Courtney Lewis (30) conducted the orchestra last Friday, and he stands out from his Irish colleagues as someone who is prepared to go that extra mile in shaping the nuance and colour of the orchestra’s playing.

What was most impressive was his handling of the orchestra in Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto. This youthful jeu d’esprit is a firecracker of a piece, a young man’s thumbing of his nose at the world of the romantic piano concerto. Although Prokofiev does not eschew some touches of romantic colouring, his music is characterised by an angular metallic glint and a spiky rhythmic energy.

Michael McHale was a wonderfully incisive soloist, and Lewis made sure that the orchestra gave him full-bodied, richly stranded support, but in a way that still kept the spotlight on the piano. This was exactly the sort of headlong, exciting adventure that Prokofiev intended it to be.

Shostakovich’s populist Fifth Symphony – an extraordinary step back from the bleak Fourth, which would remain unperformed for more than two decades – was imposingly urgent, splendid in sonority and gripping all the way.

Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, which opened the programme, were notable for their restraint, with Lewis steadfastly refusing to milk the big tunes, an approach that made them all the more effective.

The 11 young players of the National Symphony Orchestra’s mentoring scheme who took part in the concert were blessed to have such a stimulating concert as their collective debut.

Fidelio go domestic

The Fidelio Trio are in the middle of a three-year residency at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, and last weekend they brought the second of their Winter Chamber Music festivals, given in the 18th-century setting of Belvedere House on the college campus.

The trio – Darragh Morgan (violin), Adi Tal (cello) and Mary Dullea (piano) – professed their pleasure at having such a genuinely domestic scale of venue to play in. But their playing of trios by Haydn (the Gypsy Rondo Trio, with its famously giddy finale) and Dvorák (the endlessly tuneful Dumky Trio) was rather utilitarian.

The group’s reputation is in new music, and the third work in Sunday’s closing concert was a new trio by Seóirse Bodley, Dancing in Daylight. The work, dedicated to fellow composer John Buckley, is in three movements that are true to the title, save for the introduction to the finale, which is written “in the style of an Irish slow air”.

Forty years ago, Bodley stirred up the scene in Ireland with works that combined elements of traditional Irish music and the European avant garde, and went on to write music where the sound world of traditional music was dominant.

The finale of the new trio revisits those adventures with plaintiveness and energy, and dance elements expressed through cluttered chords dominate the first two. The Fidelio Trio here sounded altogether more in their element.

 

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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