Getting its houses and music in order


The KBC Great Music in Irish Houses festival has become more honest in its name, and more accessible in its programming, which is only a good thing

What’s in a name? The former KBC Music in Great Irish Houses festival has become the KBC Great Music in Irish Houses festival. And what does the shift from “Great Irish Houses” to “Great Music” actually mean? Well, it’s partly about branding, and partly about owning up to reality.

The festival began life in 1970 as A Festival in Great Irish Houses,offering “Music and Poetry in the magnificent surroundings of Castletown Carton” in 1970, when it expressed an ambition to expand to “half-a-dozen houses around Dublin”. Many of the early festivals were almost family affairs, centred on the great French cellist Paul Tortelier, and drew in not only his cello-playing wife, violin-playing son and piano-playing daughter, but also featured the great man as conductor, soloist and chamber musician. In time, new venues were explored, the festival expanded into all provinces, and it crossed the Border into Northern Ireland. In the 1980s there was almost an expectation that a house new to the festival would open its doors to music-making every year.

But the festival has long seemed to itch for the comforts and box-office potential of larger spaces. Back in 1979 its then director David Laing, with sponsorship from Bank of Ireland, made a bold move into Dublin, for a “Festival of Music and Musicians” at the RDS. It didn’t work out, not least because of a postal strike,which in those pre-internet days created insurmountable difficulties. Within a decade, the festival was using the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, a major music venue in Dublin at the time, although it is no more a “house” than the National Gallery and other spaces that the festival has also explored.

In recent years, the festival has returned to its Dublin-area roots, abandoning far-flung venues, and reducing costs and workload for the organisers. In the change of name, the dropping of the “Great Irish Houses” is really only an acknowledgement of a long-standing reality. But it’s a half-hearted one, since “Irish Houses” doesn’t actually reflect the reality either, and the “Great Music” of the title would, if it were ever to be taken literally, narrow the range of repertoire. But the reorganisation of the words means that the brand remains fully recognisable.

For most of its life the festival has struggled with an elitist reputation – small venues with high ticket prices and an exclusive audience. As a result of that, it lost its Arts Council grant back in the early 1980s. For a number of years now, it has been working solidly to counter its long-standing image, and has once again secured Arts Council support. Its biggest gesture towards mainstreaming itself was the final event of this year’s festival, its first ever venture into the National Concert Hall, where, on Sunday, it offered the first complete performance in Ireland of Steve Reich’s Drumming.

Drumming, written in 1971, is a classic, pure and simple. Nine percussionists play drums, marimbas and glockenspiels, with two sometimes whistling vocalists and a piccolo player to highlight key patterns from time to time. It’s a visceral, ritualistic, unbroken lattice of sound, that’s fascinating not just for itself, but for the kind of musical moiré patterns that Reich has integrated into it. Sunday’s performance, by the Colin Currie Group with Synergy Vocals, Rowland Sutherland on piccolo and Dave Sheppard at the mixing desk, was intentionally virtuosic and heavy in its impact.

The inclusion of Drumming, not the kind of repertoire with which the festival has often been associated, will certainly have sent out a fresh message. And it also seems to have brought in a fresh and much younger audience. Musically, the festival has made an important move, even it its title still doesn’t adequately reflect the reality of what it does.

* The night before, at Killruddery House, mezzo soprano Tara Erraught, with Henning Ruhe at the piano, showed why the international opera world is sitting up and paying attention, from the Bavarian State Opera and the Glyndebourne Festival to the Vienna State Opera, and with the Met in New York now in the queue.

To be honest, I could take or leave her selection of songs by Hamilton Harty. She seemed to me to want to put too much into them, especially his arrangement of My Lagan Love. She set out her credentials as a singing actress to far greater effect in Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, and got even more into her stride in a selection of songs by Hugo Wolf. Then, at last, she showed what all the fuss is about, in fully-characterised, vocally dramatic and sometimes thrillingly acrobatic accounts of arias by Handel and Rossini.

In terms of vocal command, colour and sheer virtuosity she has developed almost beyond recognition since I last heard her in concert, just over two years ago.

* The festival let its hair down on Friday with a programme focusing on arrangements by Dermot Dunne, Ireland’s leading accordion virtuoso. Sadly, his versions for violin (Katherine Hunka), clarinet (Carol McGonnell) and accordion of Kodály’s Dances of Galánta and Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition were anything but successful. There were lots of as-you-please effects that extended into gross distortions of the composer’s text, uneasy moments of downright inaccuracy in the notes delivered by Dunne himself, and a general air of musical knockabout. To be sure, audiences often respond positively to music-making that is on the edge. But these performances went more than a bit too far.

* Earlier on Friday, and not in the festival programme, soprano Anna Devin, currently a participant in the Jette Parker Young Artists’ programme at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, gave a lunchtime recital at the NCH John Field Room with pianist Volker Krafft. Compared with Erraught she was at a double disadvantage. Her pianist took too independent a musical trajectory to be as supportive as she needed him to be. And she was suffering from a cold.

Like Erraught, her voice has developed in tone and security, her delivery is much more mature, and she now commands a well extended range of expression. She doesn’t show Erraught’s extroversion or pure delight in vocal display. She comes across as that bit more sober and earnest. She was at her touching best in four of Gipsy Songs by Dvorak, the section of the programme where voice and piano seemed also to be most fully matched.

She is clearly another singer to watch out for with interest.

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