Testing the theory: does Ireland really punch above its musical weight?
It is often said we outstrip expectations when it comes to producing talent. But is it true?
Challenges of youth
There was a time when RTÉ went out of its way to compensate for some of our national shortcomings. In the days of the RTÉ Musician of the Future Competition, access to the airwaves was extraordinarily open for young performers. In fact, there was a time when young performers were over-represented on RTÉ radio. The demise of that competition and the effective abandonment of studio recordings has made for a much tougher environment.
But for young conductors, the situation has always been difficult, save for the years when the NSO had a post for an assistant conductor. There were just two beneficiaries of this scheme, and its success can be judged by their success. David Brophy has gone on to become principal conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Gavin Maloney is now the mainstay of the contemporary music in the NSO’s Horizons series. Neither has yet made a major international breakthrough.
The assistant conductorship was made for the likes of Conor Palliser, who last week conducted the RTÉCO in a programme of Sibelius (Finlandia), Grieg (Peer Gynt Suite No 1), Tchaikovsky (the Rococo Variations for cello and orchestra, with a rather strained William Butt) and Walton (Façade Suite No 2).
Palliser conducts like the young man he is. He looks for an orchestral sound that is clean and vivid. His phrasing is on the stiff end of matter-of-fact, and he’s not afraid to indulge in extreme ideas that take his fancy, the ponderous opening of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King being the most obvious example.
What he’ll turn into is anybody’s guess at this stage. But you can be sure that getting the necessary professional experience is going to be an uphill struggle. Before young conductors get a chance to try and persuade a professional orchestra of the validity of their vision, they have to persuade orchestral manager to take a risk of exposing an orchestra to them in the first place. And that’s the bigger challenge.
The Adams family
David Adams rounded off the 40th annual organ series in St Michael’s, Dún Laoghaire, on Sunday in fine style. His programme was a maze of connections, with references to organists who had played at St Michael’s over the years, the people who have planned the programmes (including a Planxty Connolly of his own arrangement for the series’ current director, David Connolly), a new work by his son Sebastian (whose Work for Organ includes a demanding pedal cadenza to show off the quality of his father’s footwork), and lively arrangements by Fergus Johnston (Three Bulgarian Dances) and Andrew Johnstone (of Piazzolla’s Muerte del Angel).
In his spoken introduction, Adams told a story about Sebastian as a toddler, playing energetic air organ on an upturned toy. When asked what he was doing, he said he was exhausted, because he’d been practising Gerald Barry’s The Chair. This piece was once declared unplayable, but Adams snr mastered it to the composer’s satisfaction. As he showed on Sunday, he still has the stamina to make the devilish machines of Barry’s music run at full tilt.