Musical taste: There’s no accounting for it, especially new stuff

Last weekend’s New Music festival finally delivered on its celebratory promise

Gerald Barry: His “treatment somehow intensifies, if that is imaginable, the topsy-turviness of Lewis Carroll’s imagination”. Photograph: Alan Betson

Gerald Barry: His “treatment somehow intensifies, if that is imaginable, the topsy-turviness of Lewis Carroll’s imagination”. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Musical taste is as complex and confounding as the rules of attraction. You can argue about it, but taste is one of those things that people don’t have to explain. It just is.

For example, I once met someone whose interests, he told me, extended to music up to the time of Bach and then drew a blank until The Rolling Stones. There are people who just hate the piano but love opera, and vice versa. The 21-year-old Benjamin Britten described Vaughan Williams’s Benedicite as “music which repulses me as does most of Brahms (solid, dull)”. John Tavener once called Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis “just an excuse for an expansive exercise in anguished self-expression: Beethoven’s ‘ego’ railing against God.”

The polarisation of musical responses is probably at its most extreme when it comes to new music. And not just the music of today, but the music of yesteryear when it, too, was new. A wonderful moment in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is said to have prompted Weber to declare that the composer was “fit for a madhouse”.

The European avant-garde of the 1950s stimulated as much antagonism as enthusiasm. And many of the major institutions of the classical establishment still fight shy of aspects of minimalism. The RTÉ Living Music Festival of 2002-08 focused in turn on Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Hans Werner Henze, Steve Reich, John Adams and Arvo Pärt, and achieved its greatest popular successes from Reich onwards.

Had it survived, it would have needed another similarly popular focal figure. Yet I remember hearing numerous discussions in which the choice of one of the leading candidates, Philip Glass, was treated as a kind of selling out.   

Tribal tensions

The New Music Dublin Festival, an Arts Council initiative that began in 2013 but for no good reason did not take place last year, has had mixed success in handling the tribal tensions of the new music scene. 2016’s Composing the Island, a mammoth survey of the last century of Irish music, generated its share of controversy and negative criticism. But the festival had a unifying effect, and created a sense of sharing and community that has hitherto eluded New Music Dublin.

This year’s New Music programme reinstated the weekend afternoon events, which bring players and listeners into close contact. It seemed like madness when this strand of free and family-friendly events was dropped in 2015. This year’s programme also made the best use of so far of the two RTÉ orchestras. The focus of the programme, which ran Thursday-Saturday, was the music of Thomas Adès and Gerald Barry, though the choice of two men, of course, immediately created another bone of contention for the Composing the Feminists movement.

The big Barry event was the Irish concert premiere of his latest opera, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, a wacky, obsessive sprint through Lewis Carroll that has the effect of concentrating the surreal sharpness of the original.

The 50-minute opera is a reduction in more ways than one. It’s not just that all the text is not there: Like a cook reducing a sauce, Barry’s treatment somehow intensifies, if that is imaginable, the topsy-turviness of Carroll’s imagination. The repetitions of rapid scales and arpeggios, effects that could easily become wearisome, serve to make the everyday strange, just as you can make any part of your own anatomy seem odd or even alien if you look at it long enough.

The cast (Clare Presland, Hilary Summers, Daniel Norman, Peter Tantsits, Stephen Richardson, Joshua Bloom) take on multiple roles, save for Alice herself (Claudia Boyle), and the vocal writing has that Barry characteristic of turning apparently implausible effects into plausible ones. The performance, with Adès conducting the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, communicated with what seemed like the ultimate of gusto.   

Vocal acrobatics

Andrew Hamilton doesn’t deny the influence that Barry has had on his work, and the scooping, whooping, screeching vocal acrobatics of his new O’ROURKE, written for and performed by soprano Michelle O’Rourke, presuppose a kind of high velocity mechanical vocal perfection that verges on a cartoonish musical shape-changing that not many singers command. O’Rourke delivered it to perfection.

The festival’s other major new Irish works were Stephen Gardner’s aptly named and amplified Jerk (with Crash Ensemble under Timothy Redmond) and Ed Bennett’s oppressive Psychedelia (with the RTÉ NSO under the indomitable Adès).

Adès’s own large-scale orchestral Totentanz (Dance of Death) was inspired by a now destroyed,30m-long painted cloth from the Marienkirche in Lübeck. It details the utterly levelling, all-embracing reach of death, from the Pope down to a baby, with baritone Simon Keenlyside as the relentless voice of death and mezzo soprano Christianne Stotijn as the voice of his victims. Under Adès, RTÉ NSO’s journey through his ever-changing, fantastical, musically polyglot work was an always absorbing emotional roller-coaster ride.

The New Music Dublin Festival may have reached a significant turning point this year: This was the first of these festivals in which the whole seemed more than the sum of its parts.

  mdervan@irishtimes.com

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