Pulling out the stops in Dún Laoghaire

40 years of organ recitals at St Michael’s Church

Gerard Gillen: upbeat musician

Gerard Gillen: upbeat musician

Tue, Jun 11, 2013, 01:00

The organ series at St Michael’s Church in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin started its 40th series on Sunday, and Gerard Gillen, the man who began it all, was on hand to reminisce and to play. The St Michael’s series, he said, was the first of its kind in Ireland to provide a regular outlet for organ music, and began doing so at a time when what’s long been called the king of instruments was effectively reserved for church services and the occasional, very welcome visit by a major international name.

The Rieger instrument in St Michael’s is, in musical terms, a German-style neo-baroque design, the first of its kind in Ireland. And in visual and architectural terms it’s unusual, too, being positioned on the floor behind the altar, with the player and any stop-pulling assistants in full view, rather than hidden in a loft.

The sound is bright, immediate, up-front and rarely relaxed, bringing to mind the manner of someone talking in a raised voice because they’re worried about being heard over a persistent background noise. It’s difficult to make the instrument murmur or whisper, retreat into a realm of veiled mystery, or do much that doesn’t sound explicit. It is, I’ve been told, particularly challenging to play, with a level of responsiveness that’s unforgiving.

In other words, this is an organ to separate the men from the boys. And they are all men in this year’s series, apart from violinist Maya Homburger, guesting with Malcolm Proud.

One of the pleasures of the series is hearing how individual players can present music in ways you’d never have dreamt this particular organ was capable of. Gillen’s own style is one where colour and drive are to the fore. Upbeat music seems to be his natural ground. On Sunday, he repeated his programme of 1974 – Gaspard Corrette, Bach, Böhm, Brahms and Liszt – explaining that when he was director of the series he felt a responsibility to fill in the gaps in repertoire left by the other players. The high point this time around was Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV532, showing him at his flamboyant best.

The St Michael’s series, nurtured for many years by the late Anne Leahy, and now in the safe hands of David Connolly, continues weekly until September 1st.

Lyric’s difficult transition
Vivian Coates’s Lyric Opera Productions appears to be in a process of transition, from being a company whose Dublin productions were fettered by the constraints of performing on the stage of the National Concert Hall to one working in proper theatres. Lyric’s Madama Butterfly was seen in the Grand Opera House in Belfast in the spring of last year. It presented Verdi’s Aida at the Gaiety last November with Arts Council funding, and was back there last week, again for Verdi, this time with La traviata, but without Arts Council support.

The pluses in the Gaiety are that a theatre stage allows a freedom of movement, especially in the handling of the chorus, that has always been problematic in the NCH. Balances between voices and orchestra (for a while now it has been the RTÉ Concert Orchestra rather than a pickup band) are much more manageable with the musicians in a pit. And the design and lighting opportunities are much improved, too, although the budget still obviously limits the former, and the busy and inexplicably lurid style of Alastair Kerr mars the latter.

Coates’s unfailing advocacy of Irish singers brought Claudia Boyle as the Violetta in the Gaiety Traviata. She was slow to warm up, and was either allowed or encouraged to engage in some dreadfully hammy arm waving. But, when settled in, she found an insightful balance of introvert and extrovert in the character, with some especially moving moments of quiet reflectiveness.

Her love interest, the Alfredo of Luigi Boccia, was extremely uneven in vocal delivery, and the agent of her undoing, the Giorgio Germont of George Mosley, was stiffer than the role requires.

Major downsides were a chorus that was rough in tone and awkward in presence, and smaller roles handled in a way that can only be called perfunctory. The conductor, David Angus, showed an approach that was neat and tidy but consistently managed to skirt the heart of the work. I was unpersuaded by the updating to Nazi-occupied Paris, with some gaudy costumes in jarring sweet-wrapper colours, and stiff-seeming Nazis who didn’t look like they would have appreciated the risqué dancing that was laid on in provocative choreography by Siobhán McQuillan.

The Arts Council’s re-offering of the €360,000 returned by Opera Theatre Company (whose Irish première of Berg’s Wozzeck has been cancelled) has turned into good news for Lyric. They’ve been offered €310,000 for a production of Dvorak’s Rusalka, which is currently scheduled for September.

Ergodos’s new direction
The two composers behind the Ergodos music production company, Garrett Sholdice and Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, have delivered two CDs already this year, and on Friday took a leap in a totally new direction for them, coupling a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with specially-written companion by Sholdice, Am Obersee, for bassett clarinet (the name given to the instrument of extended compass Mozart is now believed to have written the work for) and chamber orchestra.

Sholdice is a composer of stillness, working with the gentlest and palest of brushstrokes. His orientation is on the minute, as if he hopes to discover the whole world through the contemplation of a leaf of grass or the petal of a flower. Am Obersee, however, engages in a certain amount of teasing, by having a soloist (Jonathan Sage) stand in front of the orchestra for what seemed like an unaccountable time before putting his instrument to his mouth. The feather-play of the music was as persuasive as I’ve heard from Sholdice.

The performance of the Mozart, directed from the violin by Clíodhna Ryan, was orchestrally forceful, internally unbalanced (the acoustic of Christ Church Cathedral created a lot of mud in the face of too much volume), and the solo playing was bland, sometimes uncertain.

One of the evening’s major conceits was also seriously wide of the mark. Sholdice suggested that the programme was a pairing of “the first ever clarinet concerto” with “the most recent clarinet concerto”. That claim is out by about half a century. Mozart wrote his concerto in 1791. The earliest clarinet concerto likely to be in a clarinettist’s repertoire is by Johann Stamitz, who died in 1757, and Johann Melchior Molter wrote six in the 1740s.

There was, however, Mozart playing of a higher order on Saturday, when the English musician Paul Lewis was the soloist in the glorious Concerto in A, K488, at the NCH with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Paavo Järvi. Lewis didn’t sound as lovely as Finghin Collins had a few weeks earlier playing Mozart with the RTÉ NSO, but Lewis consistently conveyed an amount of detail and levels of complexity that made Collins seem by comparison altogether too easygoing.

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