Winner of first Feis Ceoil conducting competition shows them who’s boss
The real question now is whether Elaine Kelly will get the opportunities to build her experience and repertoire
‘The super-short concert is a very interesting concept. The one at Happy Day Enniskillen International Beckett Festival by French soprano Léa Trommenschlager (above) with pianist Julius Drake, was a model of its kind’
The winner of the inaugural ESB Feis Ceoil Orchestral Conducting Competition in April was Elaine Kelly from Cork. It’s good to see the Feis taking up the cause of young conductors (although young in conducting terms is slightly older in the context of the Feis as a whole: Kelly was 26 when she won the prize).
The competition was held in conjunction with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, and Kelly made her concert debut in the orchestra’s lunchtime series last week. Her programme included contrasting favourites (Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance), some neglected Irish music (AJ Potter’s Rhapsody under a High Sky), a snippet of Rossini reimagined by Benjamin Britten (the Moto perpetuo movement from Matinées musicales), and some backward-looking new music that served to show off the talents of percussionist Alex Petcu (Emmanuel Sejourné’s Marimba Concerto).
Inexperienced conductors generally face an uphill struggle with experienced orchestras. It’s often a kind of cat and dog situation in which the disputed territory is around the basics of control. Kelly passed that test with flying colours. The orchestral playing was clean and disciplined. And the musical approach had a straightness to match. There was nothing eccentric or temperamental in her quirk-free style.
The real question now is whether she is going to get opportunities to build her experience and repertoire. Sadly, the ground-breaking assistant conductorship with the RTÉ NSO, which benefited the careers of David Brophy and Gavin Maloney, no longer exists. The talent may be there, but the Irish training ground is closed.
Happy days indeed
The Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival is exactly what its name suggests, a celebration of a great writer. But the celebration is not limited to his writings. Even if you discount the 42 installation-style performances of John Cage’s Roaratorio planned for the Marble Arch Caves, some of which were cancelled due to flooding, there were two dozen other musical events: concerts, talks, and the first ever Irish performance of one of composer Heiner Goebbels’s theatre pieces.
Music at Happy Days tends to come in small measures, with many of the events offering just a single work. A Schubert piano trio or the Trout Quintet can make up a morning concert, and shorter pieces of about 15 minutes stand alone in an afternoon slot called Precious Little. This year also brought a late-night Good Heavens series, which explored electronic music.
What has all this to do with Beckett, you might ask. Well, the festival director, Seán Doran, is not a man to miss a Beckett connection of any kind. The afternoon repertoire was of French song, in homage “to Samuel Beckett’s adopted home and adopted mother tongue in his writing”. The electronic music was sparked by the fact that Stockhausen was working on his Gesang der Jünglinge at the same time in the 1950s that Beckett was writing Krapp’s Last Tape. Schubert was Beckett’s favourite composer, and gets most of the attention. Shostakovich and Schoenberg are there, too, apparently on the basis of: why not?
Over three days I managed to hear Roaratorio in the caves, a journey that begins on a flat-bottomed boat that’s carefully steered around skull-threatening outcrops. Cage spent months in Ireland collecting sounds mentioned in Finnegans Wake, and there was something more than eerie in being so far underground and hearing a distant seagull or the sound of a baby crying. Cage delighted in stimulating people’s sense of wonder. And although the freedom to wander through his soundscape was extremely limited in the caves, the sense of wonder was very much alive, not least in watching members of the Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre engaging in some moments of Irish high-kicking on tiny, precarious-looking platforms.