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.
The super-short concert is actually a very interesting concept. Get it right, and it’s like a perfect jewel, and the one I attended, of French soprano Léa Trommenschlager with pianist Julius Drake in Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, was a model of its kind. In their evocation of an imagined ancient Greece, Trommenschlager and Drake combined purity and suggestiveness in a way that seemed effortless. And the sheer loveliness of the singing was a delight, too.
The Phoenix Piano Trio’s performance of Schubert’s Trio in E flat had something of the air of a conversation among friends. Nobody was scoring off anybody else, no one had to strive to make a point. The give and take was easy, although the style was at times a little casual, too, with slips of the kind that might be taken for failings of concentration. But the overall impression was genial, and the dangerously protracted finale, a stumbling block in so many performances of this work, seemed not a moment too long.
The Meccorre Quartet from Poland were also heard in Schubert, the Death and the Maiden Quartet, in which their playing sounded rushed and restless. There is an essential gravity in much of this work that eluded them. They were in fine form in Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, capturing its compassion as fully as its abrasiveness.
Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for string sextet was presented in a late-night slot with a video by Netia Jones. The work was inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel in which a woman confesses to her lover that she is pregnant by another man. He tells her that what they feel for each other will transfigure the child, and it will be as if it were his.
Jones’s video incorporated the original words and a new translation by Vona Groarke over grainy images of a man and a woman walking through a winter wood, with the occasional overlay of the live movements of one of the string players. A more kitsch or more redundant response to Schoenberg’s music would be hard to imagine. The playing, by the Meccorre Quartet with Simon Aspell (viola) and Thomas Carroll (cello), moved freely in the area of no-holds-barred hysteria that this music often inspires.
At the other end of the scale was Goebbels’s I Went to the House But Did Not Enter, a “staged concert” with the Hilliard Ensemble in the production by Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne. This is musically spare (the voices sing a kind of recitative for ensemble) and visually striking (four men congregated in a well-appointed hotel room) in a way that is calculated to do nothing more than make the words stand out.
“Can words be music?” someone asked Goebbels in a public interview. Yes, came the answer, without qualification or elaboration. I Went to the House But Did Not Enter may be musically thin, but it also shows how full his appreciation of the challenge of setting Beckett’s already musical text to music actually is.