Killaloe Music Festival lets its hair down with a pared-back approach

St Flannan’s is a challenging acoustic for musicians; here their solution is an energetic approach

The performance of Mendelssohn’s youthful Octet, led by Katherine Hunka (above), buzzed with energy. The audience loved it. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

The performance of Mendelssohn’s youthful Octet, led by Katherine Hunka (above), buzzed with energy. The audience loved it. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Wed, Jun 18, 2014, 01:00

The Killaloe Music Festival has got a new lease of life, although it’s not quite the same Killaloe Music Festival that the Irish Chamber Orchestra ran from 1996 to 2003 before moving into Limerick city, where it never seemed to settle.

The original festival was an accurate reflection of the dynamism of the orchestra after its 1995 relocation to Limerick. Visiting artists included violinists Augustin Dumay and Ruggiero Ricci, pianists Maria João Pires and Stephen Kovacevich, and the Brodsky Quartet. The repertoire extended to Bach’s St John Passion and Philip Glass’s Third Symphony, and in 2001 included the Irish premiere of Handel’s then recently rediscovered Gloria.

The new festival is altogether more modest. It’s still based in St Flannan’s Cathedral, but it features just chamber music and song, and its reach is local. Artistic director and ICO viola player Joachim Roewer draws in colleagues from the orchestra and musicians from elsewhere in the country. The festival uses seating at the front of the cathedral, with the back area functioning as a kind of foyer, which is a good ploy for bad weather.

What the two festivals have in common is the venue’s extremely unwieldy acoustic. You can sometimes imagine that the sound goes everywhere and anywhere before it reaches the listener in a blurred and weakened state. The ICO experimented in various ways to dry out the sound, and managed significant improvements. It was rather startling in Ravel’s String Quartet, the first work I heard on Saturday, to be reminded how confused and confusing the sound in St Flannan’s can actually be.

The style of playing didn’t really help. First violinist Mia Cooper showed an eagerness that freely escalated into overkill, as if digging into the string for gutsiness was the way to make the music come fully alive. In St Flannan’s, the opposite is typically the case: the lighter the playing, the more the audience will get out of it. The sound has to be scaled down in order to retain its shape.

Over the two programmes I attended, this was nowhere more clear than in the opening of Bach’s Musical Offering, in which the three-part Ricercar was played on solo harpsichord by the Limerick-based Israeli musician Yonit Kosovske. The sound was tiny, almost hard to hear at the start. But once the audience adjusted and hushed themselves, there was an aura of concentration in which you could have heard a pin drop.

Pianist Hugh Tinney, who featured in the Schumann Piano Quintet, and in Brahms’s two songs with viola (with soprano Lynda Lee and Roewer) and Poulenc’s Banalités, showed real sensitivity. Lee’s strong-voiced singing, however, was too consistently forthright to convey much variety of mood.

Overall, the style of music-making had the air of a jam session about it, of musicians letting their hair down and having a good time.

The closing performance of Mendelssohn’s youthful Octet, led by Katherine Hunka, buzzed with energy, not of a sophisticated variety but more along the lines of “never mind the quality, feel the width”. After all, the composer appended a note when the parts of the work were first published: “This Octet must be played by all the instruments in the style of a symphonic orchestra. Pianos and fortes must be exactly observed and more strongly emphasised than is usual in works of this type.”

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