An Irishman's Diary
‘A Winged Victory for the Sullen” sounds a bit like the headline over an op-ed piece lamenting the negative influences of sponsorship in sport. One imagines the article taking a poor view of the Greek goddess Nike – the original “Winged Victory” – as, in her latter-day corporate manifestation, she continually bestows honours on sports stars who are subsequently exposed as drug abusers or serial adulterers, or accused of murder.
But in fact, happily, A Winged Victory for the Sullen has nothing to do Nike. It’s only the name of a music group. A duo, more exactly: Americans Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran. Whose modernist compositions – variously described as “ambient”, “post-classical”, and “the future of the late-night record you have always dreamed of”* will feature in a festival called New Music Dublin next week.
The quotation above (*) is from the website of the National Concert Hall, where the festival takes place. And no, I don’t know what it means either. But reviews have suggested the duo’s music is a powerful antidote to sullenness. It may even have an uplifting effect on audiences, apparently, although actual wings are not supplied.
Elsewhere in the festival – and most excitingly for many people – will be the Irish premiere of Arvo Pärt’s 4th Symphony. Written in 2009, this was the first symphony in almost 40 years from the world’s “most performed living composer”. And aside from rarity, it also carries an unusual political charge, dedicated as it is to the former oil magnate, now exiled in Siberia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Officially, Khodorkovsky is in jail for fraud. But Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience and Pärt, who had his own troubles in the Soviet-era Estonia of his birth, clearly agrees.
The symphony is at least an implied criticism of Vladimir Putin, for whom Khodorkovsky remains, even behind bars, a bothersome rival. And it too evokes the prospect of winged victory. With poetic modesty, Pärt has described his work as a “carrier pigeon” whose message, he hopes, “will reach faraway Siberia one day”.
Also political, and also in the festival, is Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s 20th-century landmark De Staat. Meaning “the Republic”, it was inspired by Plato’s work of the same name. And even in its own right, it slightly stretches the definition of new music, since it was written in 1976.
But this too will be a first live Irish performance. Besides which, its treatment of such questions as the extent to which music-making is innate or socially-conditioned, remains radical. As well the usual orchestral instruments, I’m told, there are electric guitars involved.
The various political elements are apt, because the festival is part of the celebrations of Ireland’s EU presidency. A collective effort by the Arts Council, the NCH, the RTÉ orchestras, and the Contemporary Music Centre, it runs from March 1st to 3rd. More information is available from newmusicdublin.ie
The old music has not gone away, meanwhile. And so long as it has champions like Killian Farrell, its health will be assured. Farrell is the sort of young man on whom – if she had any sense – the goddess Nike would be showering her honours, instead of wasting them on sports stars. A musical prodigy, he also has the self-confidence, energy, and organisational abilities that Napoleon must have had at a similar age.
Two years ago, when he was 17, I wrote about how Killian was producing and directing a performance of Bach’s St John Passion, complete with international soloists, full orchestra, and a choir of neophyte singers he was training for the purpose.
It was a contribution to the golden jubilee of his local church, St Pius X in Templeogue, where the performance was to take place (and did, to great acclaim). But ambitious as it seemed at the time, Killian modestly demurred that it was only the St John he was attempting, not Bach’s more epic St Matthew Passion, which would have meant “two choirs, two orchestras, and twice the budget”.
Well, the inevitable has come to pass. Although he’s getting on a bit now, at 19, Killian still shows no signs of slowing down. This Easter, he will conduct the St Matthew at the same venue, with tenor John Elwes, the Orchestra of St Cecelia – bisecting itself for the evening – and two adult choirs, plus one comprising local schoolchildren. The event takes place on March 25th. Tickets are available at the church office, or via the website Stpiusx.ie/newsletter/95.