Out of the chamber and into the world

The reach and reputation of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival resonates beyond the Bantry venues


To see why the West Cork Chamber Music Festival in Bantry is so special, and why it commands a listenership of more than seven million people via European Broadcasting Union relays of the RTÉ Lyric fm broadcasts, you only have to look at this evening’s opening concert.

It starts with a little-known Suite for piano by Romanian composer George Enescu, completed in a neo-classical style in 1903, nearly two decades before neo classicism would become fashionable. That’s followed by three string quartets, György Ligeti’s First, titled Métamorphoses nocturnes and written before he fled his native Hungary in 1956. After that, it’s the ecstatic, Brahmsian Slow Movement written by Anton Webern in 1905 in response to a holiday with the cousin he would later marry, and back to the Quartet in C minor that Brahms finished in 1873, having, he claimed, destroyed 20 earlier attempts as unsatisfactory.

Then follows the 1994 Conversio for violin and piano by the Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür, a work that has been described as “seriously minimalist with chaffing, Irish-style fiddle playing and a ceilidh-stomp rhythm”, and, to end, the first performance of a new quartet by John Kinsella, his fifth. A total of 19 musicians will traverse the stage, as each of the quartets will be performed by a different group, the Kelemen Quartet, Cuarteto Casals, the Jupiter String Quartet, and the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet.

The first festival, in 1996, showed serious ambitions, with a programme of 14 concerts. This year there will be 38, with master classes and talks bringing the total number of events to 65.

“The audience has stayed with us, and the musicians still want to come,” says festival director Francis Humphrys. “But it’s a much harder slog now to get the money together. There’s been the godsend of substantial, three-year support from the EU Culture Fund from 2011. That’s kept us going in very dark times. And the Arts Council has also stayed with us. But, basically, next year we have to try to fill the gap after the last instalment of €100,000 from the EU. We’ve cut everything so close to the bone, we’ve very little wriggle-room left. Partnerships with other festivals or international organisations, if they can be created, may be the only way forward.”

Humphrys’s personal festival highlight is the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s programme under Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. “I’ve never heard any of that concert’s works live. Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa is a very moving piece and also Pekka and Vadim Gluzman playing Prokofiev’s Sonata for two violins together.”

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