NCH finding space for work by living Irish composers

Its Chamber Music series is its largest yet with a welcome focus on native talent

Fidelio Trio: their playing of Beethoven’s Ghost Trio had a kind of antiseptic cleanness, as if each of the three players – violinist Darragh Morgan, cellist Adi Tal and pianist Mary Dullea – were slightly cocooned from one another. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning

Fidelio Trio: their playing of Beethoven’s Ghost Trio had a kind of antiseptic cleanness, as if each of the three players – violinist Darragh Morgan, cellist Adi Tal and pianist Mary Dullea – were slightly cocooned from one another. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning

 

The National Concert Hall’s current Chamber Music series is the largest yet. It’s a welcome development that the NCH has turned its attention to music on a smaller scale, and this season’s series runs to more than 30 concerts. 

It includes a complete cycle of the Beethoven string quartets by the RTÉ Contempo Quartet, and features the first advertised Dublin performances by The Vanbrugh with pianist Michael McHale, scheduled for February. The Vanbrugh are a string trio made up of three members of the now-disbanded Vanbrugh String Quartet.

It’s a series on a scale that has not been seen in Dublin since the glory days of the Royal Dublin Society’s recital series in the 20th century. Until the 1980s, this ran from October to March with two weekly concerts for most of that stretch.

The NCH’s programming is much more focused on native talent

The RDS’s programming concentrated on performers from abroad. It embraced many of the great names of the day but only rarely included appearances by Irish artists and showed little engagement with contemporary music. The NCH’s programming is much more focused on native talent and finds plenty of space for work by living Irish composers, most of it new or recent.

What the two series have in common is a peculiarly lax approach to the provision of printed programmes. The RDS listed the names of the composers, their dates, the names of the works and a list of movements. The most recent of the NCH concerts does not even rise that far. The Fidelio Trio’s weekend programme included just the names of the composers and the works, no dates, no list of movements. 

It does have one side-benefit though – it makes it incumbent on responsible performers to step into the breach and give spoken introductions before they play.

It’s always interesting to hear performers’ personal takes on the music they study and perform. Their approaches are often highly personal, even idiosyncratic, and can provide insights into their styles of music-making, as when an academic introduction is followed by a dry-as-dust performance, or a fanciful exploration of the music’s background precedes an imaginative engagement with the music itself.

Consistency of structure and scope are not really a feature of the spoken introduction the way they are of the printed programme note, and even basic audibility cannot always be presumed. Musicians speaking spontaneously before a performance tend to treat their contribution as somewhere between a bonus and an aside. They want to be fascinating and entertaining, but rarely intend what they say to be the whole story.

That story is still needed, not least for listeners new to the music as well as listeners new to the concert experience itself. It’s a truism that there’s a first time for all of us to hear Beethoven’s Fifth – or anything else – in concert. And anything that helps someone get the most out of the experience is an investment in the audiences of the future.

Beyond all of that, I cannot help but be reminded of a sentence from the autobiography of the composer and critic Virgil Thomson. Thomson’s reviewing career for the New York Herald Tribune began at a time when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra had lost Arturo Toscanini as its conductor, and his successor, John Barbirolli, was having a difficult ride.

Classical music is also at the margins of Ireland’s intellectual life

Thomson’s first review was of a Barbirolli concert, to which he had taken the painter Maurice Grosser. Grosser had not been to the Philharmonic before, and Thomson quoted him at the end of the review, “I understand now why the Philharmonic is not a part of New York’s intellectual life.”

Classical music is also at the margins of Ireland’s intellectual life. And for the National Concert Hall to present events as if everyone who turns up and pays for a ticket should have prior understanding of the musical context only serves to exacerbate that situation.

The Fidelio Trio’s playing of Beethoven’s Ghost Trio had a kind of antiseptic cleanness, as if each of the three players – violinist Darragh Morgan, cellist Adi Tal and pianist Mary Dullea – were slightly cocooned from one another. It was a case of coordination triumphing over connection. The altogether greater technical challenges of Ravel’s Trio in A minor (Ravel declared himself “absolutely incapable of playing the piano part”) found all three players on better form.

Earlier in the week, three members of the Irish Baroque Orchestra – violinist Claire Duff, cellist Sarah Mc Mahon and harpsichordist Malcolm Proud – gave the last of the orchestra’s Prodigies and Premieres sub-series within the larger NCH chamber music series. 

Duff played two violin sonatas by Corelli. She offered the first, Op 5 No 9, with embellishments by Geminiani, the second, Op 5 No 6, with additions by Dubourg, decorative fancies which showed a concern for rapid figuration that was at times almost as comic as someone who crams descriptive sentences with as many adjectives as possible. 

The big piece in Friday’s RTÉ NSO concert was the grief-stricken Asrael Symphony by Josef Suk

Sarah McMahon made a persuasive case for Geminiani’s Cello Sonata, Op 5 No 3, and Duff was put through her paces in two works by Derry composer Seán Doherty, Divisions I and Divisions II. The latter piece was being heard for the first time, and both works strove to bring an etude-like, 21st-century flavour to compositional practices of the baroque. 

The big piece in Friday’s RTÉ NSO concert was the grief-stricken Asrael Symphony by Josef Suk, written in 1905-6 in the wake of the deaths of his father-in-law, the composer Antonin Dvorak, and his wife Otilie. Ten years ago, for the NSO’s last performance of the work, Arminta Wallace wrote a feature in these pages placing the work in the context of “totally OTT symphonies”. The fervour of Friday’s performance under Case Scaglione certainly put Suk’s outcry in the exactly that category. 

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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