Kilkenny Arts Festival brings Beethoven to life

New director Eugene Downes has put classical music back at the heart of the festival, and in fine style

Pianist Barry Douglas’s gutsy playing was often an edge-of-the-seat experience

Pianist Barry Douglas’s gutsy playing was often an edge-of-the-seat experience

Wed, Aug 20, 2014, 01:00

It was like old times at Kilkenny Arts Festival. The new director, Eugene Downes, put classical music right back at the heart of this year’s festival, and he did it in style. He invited Britain’s Heath Quartet to perform the complete string quartets of Beethoven, and Barry Douglas to perform all five of the composer’s piano concertos, directing Camerata Ireland from the keyboard.

Downes is now best-known for his role in establishing Culture Ireland as a force to be reckoned with in promoting Irish arts and culture abroad. After his abrupt exit from Culture Ireland, he chose to follow his passion for opera, and set about an ultimately fruitless plan to reignite the creation of a national opera company. His preferred mechanism appeared to be to take over Opera Theatre Company and somehow reverse-engineer it into a new, national company.

The Kilkenny festival seems a much better match for his talents, and it clearly doesn’t preclude him from getting involved in opera; witness this year’s concert performance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. I didn’t get to hear that, because it clashed with Heiner Goebbels’s I Went to the House But Did Not Enter at the Happy Days festival in Enniskillen. The expectation is that opera will feature more strongly in future Kilkenny festivals.

One of Downes’s often overlooked career moves was a stint as a radio presenter in the early days of RTÉ Lyric FM, where, in addition to talking about opera, he hosted a Saturday record-review show. If memory serves, on that show he talked about opera like an expert and about most other music like an enthusiast.

Experts don’t always manage to see the wood for the trees, and when it comes to the world of professional opera, Downes may well have been blinded to reality – the State and the Arts Council’s deep-seated indifference to opera – by the urgency of the need he feels for Ireland to have a national company. In Kilkenny, on the other hand, he seems to have seen a clearly deliverable goal, a statement that would grab anyone’s attention. He certainly achieved that with no fewer than 13 concerts of Beethoven in his first year.

When I arrived in Kilkenny last Friday for the first of the final weekend’s quartet concerts, I encountered an atmosphere that definitely had something of the air of pilgrimage about it. People were aware that hearing all of the Beethoven quartets over 10 days was a rare opportunity. The journey was clearly special for both performers and listeners.

The Heath Quartet’s approach was beautifully scaled to the small size of St John’s Priory. The players’ tone was mostly light, their vibrato often sparing, their textures clear, their expressive manner showing a neutrality that tended towards understatement.

They excelled in the giddy instability that Beethoven loved to play around with in Scherzo movements, and wherever delicacy was called for, they were in their element. The weightier aspects of the music were less consistently well-served, although the epic that is the Grosse Fuge was handled with grit and determination.

There was something altogether more elemental in Barry Douglas’s approach to the piano concertos at St Canice’s Cathedral. Douglas gave less the impression of trying to keep the music in control than of giving himself up so that he could be controlled by it. You could call the Heath Quartet classical in their approach, and Douglas romantic. But to my ears, he sounded, well, Beethovenian in a way that seemed to elude the quartet.

The quartet made a point of pairing in a single programme the last of the early Op 18 quartets with the first of the middle-period Op 59 quartets, to show what a stylistic gap had opened up in Beethoven’s music over a period of just six years. Douglas’s approach suggested he was less concerned with early Beethoven as a precursor to later Beethoven than with the commonalities that make Beethoven what he is. His gutsy playing was often an edge-of-the-seat experience, and fully made up for some off-colour moments in the playing of Camerata Ireland. Expect Downes’s Beethoven Quest to be an event that music lovers will be talking about for years to come.

The weekend’s other concert was a Gems of the Baroque programme: Vivaldi, Handel and Corelli, performed by soprano Deirdre Moynihan with the Irish Baroque Orchestra Chamber Soloists.

It was a slightly frustrating experience. Moynihan has a lovely, quite agile voice, slightly tremulous in vibrato, but of a nature that you would expect to work well in baroque music. But she used her voice as if she had only one, unvarying mode of delivery, and that mode was rarely sensitive to the words themselves or the import of them. For all the beauty of the sound, the expressive range was extremely narrow.

The highlight of the concert came not in any of the three vocal items, but in Claire Duff’s performance of Corelli’s Violin Sonata in G minor, Op 5 No 5. The playing was anything but plain, as she chose to use embellishments by the English violinist and composer Matthew Dubourg, who spent much of his life in Dublin, where he led the orchestra in the first performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1742. Duff’s daring handling of his intricate additions had all the excitement of a high-wire act.


New manager for the RTÉ NSO

John O’Kane is less than three months into his new role as executive director of RTÉ’s orchestras, quartet and choirs, and the announcement has just been made of a new appointment to his team. The new general manager of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra will be Imelda Dervin, and she will take up her new role in late September.

She is the acting head of music and opera at the Arts Council, and has previously worked with Opera Theatre Company, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, Cork City of Culture 2005 and London’s Academy of St Martin in the Fields. She has also worked with the RTÉ orchestras, and should have a good grasp of the hot issues affecting the NSO at the moment.

She also has an existing professional relationship with O’Kane, as he too came to RTÉ from the council, where he was arts director until he moved to RTÉ. Between them, the two should be able to bring a stability that the management of the orchestra has been lacking for a couple of years.

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