Good year, bad year: critics' highs and lows

 

From a triumphant show by Antony and the Johnsons to the sad decline of Bob Dylan and from pertinent post-Tiger theatre to the submergence of the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, ‘Irish Times’ critics reveal their favourite and least favourite moments in the Irish arts in 2009

VISUAL ART

AIDAN DUNNE

HIGHS

He may not have been as exciting an Irish landscape artist as one would like, but 18th-century Waterford-born painter Thomas Robertsemerged well from the National Gallery’s exhibition of his work in March, thanks chiefly to the thorough approach adopted by writers and curators William Laffan and Brendan Rooney.

In what was a hectic year for him, Hughie O’Donoghue’s Recent Paintings and Selected Worksfrom the American Ireland Fund Donation at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) in March was quite a blockbuster. It was a welcome survey of O’Donoghue’s ambitious work, centring on the human figure and the human subject in contemporary art and the western artistic tradition.

It was a great year for Irish representation at the Venice Biennale, with outstanding work from Irish duo Kennedy Browne (Sarah Browne and Gareth Kennedy), Susan MacWilliam (representing Northern Ireland) and a collateral project by the technologically adept John Gerrard. All contributed much to a good overall event.

Rachel Parry’sexhibition of sculpture and mixed-media works at the Fenton Gallery in June was remarkable by any standard, with a flawless and tremendously inventive blend of materials, techniques and concepts. Many pieces deserve to find their way into public collections.

The Visual National Centre for Contemporary Artopened in Carlow in September, the spectacular outcome of many years of preparatory work and civic effort. It has opened at a daunting time, but its facilities harbour great promise.

LOWS

The proposed amalgamation of the three national arts institutions(Imma, the National Gallery of Ireland and the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork), mooted as a cost-saving measure – and pursued as what, a piece of bureaucratic indulgence? – didn’t make sense to anyone who examined the issues involved. Now partially abandoned, the proposal involved a waste of time and energy by a lot of people.

Cork had a hard time, what with the loss of its two main commercial galleries, the Vangard and the Fenton, both important landmarks in the city’s cultural landscape. Then, to rub salt in the wounds, the recent flooding saturated the Lewis Glucksman Gallery and damaged works in the substantial UCC art collection.

The RHA also suffered. Just when the outstanding refurbishment of the Gallagher Gallery and other sections of the building was delivered, the academy was clobbered by poor sales at two annual exhibitions in a row. As these are normally a major source of funding, this led to job losses and the curtailment of opening hours. AD


THEATRE

PETER CRAWLEY; MARY LELAND; JANE COYLE; PATRICK LONERGAN

HIGHS

While Tom Murphy’s unwieldy The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrantthis year barked its relevance – property, land, money! – in fevered plot synopsis, Druid’s achingly sensitive production of his 1983 play, The Gigli Concert, seemed unforced, fresh and more pertinent. A depressed property developer visits a quack “dynamatologist” in an audacious quest for salvation, and in the alchemy of performance, Garry Hynes’s production gave us spiritual transcendence in a time of buckling beliefs. PC

We have ways of breaking your heart, Seán Millar’s moving song cycle, Silver Stars, seemed to say in Brokentalkers’ gently mesmerising production. And what ways. Based on verbatim interviews with older Irish gay men, and performed largely by disarmingly vulnerable non-professionals, songs and sexual politics gained an unusual emotional wallop through minimal sentimentality, some audacious devices (Neil Watkins’s novelty spectacles, anyone?) and consoling choruses. PC

The big theatrical event in Cork has to have been the adaptation of Moby Dickby Judy Hegarty Lovett and Conor Lovett of Gare St Lazare Players, which opened in Youghal before going on a nationwide tour. “Call me Ishmael” was a line offered by solo performer Conor Lovett as if it had never been read, not to mind spoken, before. The writers’ use of Melville’s biblical imagery and almost Shakespearean phrasing brought a luminous and wondering compassion to the story which, while necessarily shorn of many of Melville’s instructive passages, seemed true both to his inspiration and his genius. ML

In a double-whammy from Ransom Productions, Richard Dormer wrote and headed the cast of The Gentlemen’s Tea-Drinking Society, a manic comedy on the unlikely subject of quantum physics, and Suzie Miller gave us Transparency, a searing observation of a marriage in which one partner is a child murderer with a new identity. JC

In a thoroughly disappointing year for new Irish writing, Michael West’s Freefallstood out. Moving, intelligent and brilliantly staged by Corn Exchange, West’s play was an important reassertion of our society’s core values after the demise of the Celtic Tiger. PL

It is rare enough that a new theatre company emerges on the Fringe with a fully formed aesthetic and intriguing things to say about the medium; rarer still when that group anticipates and outwits every experimental cliche. In Who Is Fergus Kilpatrick?, inspired by a Borges short story, director Jose Miguel Jimenez and The Company created a multilayered, multimedia meditation on fiction and reality, routinely wrongfooting the audience in a delightful self-reflexive game. Fergus remained elusive, but The Company announced itself with stimulating, artful clarity. PC

Love and Money,Dennis Kelly’s aggressive and darkly funny satire about love in an age of conspicuous consumption may have resembled a cautionary fable about the day before yesterday (it debuted in 2006), but Annabelle Comyn’s Hatch Theatre Company at the Project made it the right play at the right time. Acridly funny, with the jarring progression of a sketch show, it hovered around bad debts and its human consequences, prompting wicked laughs and a lingering chill. PC

Damian Gorman’s Sleep Eat Party, for Tinderbox, was based on interviews with young men from all over the North. Its fine young cast gave a voice to those who feel marginalised, ignored and failed by the system. JC

Opinion on The Crumb Trail, Pan Pan’s hyper-textual dissertation on the fairy tale, finally performed in Dublin, was sharply divided. With its Grimm material splintered among YouTube memes, scuzzy rock songs and urban nightmares, some people thought it was rootless and chaotic, noisy and knowing, with a through-line as challenging to follow as the one in its title. Others were more critical. Few shows have been more stimulating, fun or divisive, though, provoking heated arguments between believers and naysayers. PC

Another solo show of memorable quality was Gary Lydon’s portrayal of a rural misfit in Billy Roche’s One Is Not a Numberat the Granary (and a short tour), directed by Johnny Hanrahan for Meridian Theatre Company. ML

After years of underinvestment, Irish actor training received an enormous boost when Trinity College Dublin announced the establishment of an Academy for the Dramatic Arts, funded by the Cathal Ryan Trust. Our most talented performers and directors will at last be able to receive world-class tuition without having to leave Ireland, a major development for Irish theatre, and for Irish education too. PL

LOWS

Although there has been more public fuss about the closure of the Kino cinema, Cork’s major cultural disappointment was the decision by Cork Institute of Technology to abandon the four-year honours degreein theatre and drama studies, withdrawn because of “substantial downward adjustments to the budgets”. The course had been advertised in the CAO forms and was to be offered at the Cork School of Music, where downward adjustments meant that the new junior intake was reduced from 160 to 60. ML

Although it was eventually and mercifully resolved, the early intention of Lane Productions to use unpaid extrasin The Shawshank Redemptionprovoked an understandable outcry. That producer Pat Moylan had also recently been appointed chairwoman of the Arts Council, at a time when the subsidised sector was deeply worried about financial support, compounded the matter. The upshot has been increased vigilance on the part of artists, and an articulate insistence on fair deals, an energy sustained by the coherent advocacy of the National Campaign for the Arts. PC

The startlingly bleak report of An Bord Snip Nuaproposed the abolition of The Irish Film Board, Culture Ireland and possibly the Department of Arts itself, casting a pall over the sector. One positive outcome was to galvanise the arts world into a consolidated, coherent and largely successful resistance, both locally and nationally. With the worst case scenario averted, a goverental proposal to move the Abbey to the GPO seemed an unnecessary, impracticable and costly continuation of another exhausted saga. PC

The year began with the shocking loss of Opera 2005due to the withdrawal of Arts Council funding. The more recent closure of the Fenton and Vangard galleries in the city is another blow to Cork’s sense of its cultural importance. ML


DANCE

MICHAEL SEAVER

HIGHS

Dublin Dance Festival featured some instant sugar-rush hits, but Jose Navas’s solo, Miniatures, was a slow-carb release of beautiful, eloquent movement that still satisfies and lingers in the memory.

This was a year of successful Irish exports: Daghdha at Helsinki, Fabulous Beast at Sadler’s Wells, Dance Theatre of Ireland in South Korea and a host of independent choreographers flying the flag for Irish dance in Europe and the US.

Liz Roche’s 12-minute dancesfor Rex Levitates Dance Company were carefully crafted and deliberately understated, and confirmed her position as the one of the most thought-provoking Irish choreographers around.

LOWS

The death of Merce Cunningham– a re-inventor of dance and one of the most important artists of the last century, he was an inspiration throughout his entire life. MS


ROCK/POP/ROOTS/ TRAD/FOLK/JAZZ

TONY CLAYTON-LEA; LAURENCE MACKIN; RAY COMISKEY; SIOBHÁN LONG; DAVIN O’DWYER

HIGHS

U2’s previous appearance at Croke Park several years ago was undermined by an atrocious sound system. This year, in the last week of July, plugging their (comparatively) under-achieving album, No Line on the Horizon, the band delivered a propulsive and often astonishing display of arena-sized rock coupled with singularly intimate moments. TCL

At the end of last year, Dublin got a proper large venue that replaced the characterless Point Depot and put the RDS cowshed to shame, in the shape of the 02. But we had to wait until April to get a proper stadium rock band to fulfil its potential. There was no adequate preparation for the AC/DConslaught of cathedral-sized riffs, rolling thunder drums and locomotive bass lines. Add in the life-size train, preposterous cartoon backdrops and a spread-volley cannon salute – it was as subtle as war. LM

The ongoing success of the Improvised Music Company’s annual four-day 12 Points Festivalfor young European musicians is now recognised internationally. Next year the Norwegians will host it, after which it will come back to Dublin, thereafter alternating between Ireland and other European countries. RC

Lyle Lovettat the Olympia, Dublin, demonstrated wit, erudition and musical imagination in perfect unison. SL

The Nightsaverwas one of the albums of the year for me, and launch night at Whelans in April was an opportunity for David Kittto demonstrate what a good showman he can be when the conditions are right and the mood takes him. To see him repeat the trick not once but twice at Electric Picnic only confirmed that Kitt is triumphantly fulfilling his early promise. DOD

Antony Hegarty has gone from strength to strength, with his albums displaying a remarkable clarity of purpose and sophisticated songwriting skills. Now, the Antony and the Johnsonslive show is living up to the expectations created by the recorded material. At a Vicar Street evening in June he had the audience in raptures (with hecklers competing in compliments only) as he brought his enigmatic source material to vivid, thrilling life, backed by a band that unfolded each track with startling precision. The scale of Hegarty’s personality was matched by the groove, guts and heart of the Johnsons – a night to be savoured. LM

Most people would have predicted that David Byrne’s April show would be entertaining, delightful even, but nobody could have expected a performance as magical as this. The all-white costumes, the whimsical dance routines and the music of Byrne and Brian Eno – imagine Stop Making Senseif it had been directed by Wes Anderson and you’ll begin to picture this outstanding evening at the National Concert Hall. DOD

After the Morning, the new CD from Roscommon piano accordionist Alan Kelly, is a rich testament to his compositional strengths and marks a welcome return to musical top form. SL
Miltown Malbay’s 37th Willie Clancy Summer Schoolfeatured backroom sessions involving The Chieftains’ fiddler, Seán Keane, flute player Cathal McConnell and other luminaries of the tradition in intimate (and magical) musical communion. SL

Respect to the old guy in the snazzy suit and hat. Canadian poet, novelist and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’sperformance at Dublin’s O2 in July affirmed one’s faith in how dignity can still be maintained while delivering a greatest hits set. The words “beautiful” and “gracious” spring immediately to mind. TCL

While his epic 2008 set at Malahide Castle divided the true believers from his less partisan fans, this June show at the O2 was a powerful reminder that, for Neil Young, rust never seems to get tired, never mind sleep. Beginning with a mighty rendition of Hey Hey, My Myand rarely letting up until a frantic cover of A Day in the Life,this was a privilege to behold. DOD

It was raining virtually non-stop in July, which meant mucky terrain at Punchestown, with all of the covered Oxegengigs stuffed to capacity. Yet the mood was north of happy, and the range of music was the best thing until December’s Other Voicesevent. Speaking of which . . . TCL

With property prices on the plummet and pubs desperate to get their punters back, it was encouraging to see promoters and bands develop an alternative approach to venues, finding new spaces to put on shows. Alternative outlets are now not just for festivals, with plenty of galleries, churches and large spaces turning into temporary venues, and outdoor spaces getting some night-time use in the summer months. This is a terrific development that’s making our cultural scene much more vibrant and exciting. Independent promoters deserve credit for their enthusiasm and creativity. LM

With the economy enduring a perfect storm, musicians here still managed to release four high-quality jazz albums: Dylan Rynhart’s Mouthpiece, Justin Carroll’s Togetherness, Mark McKnight’s Overnightand Francesco Turrisi’s Si Dolce è il Tormento. RC

The Button Factory County Sessions– at last, a fortnightly city centre gathering of great music and musicians. SL

April’s stunning concert by Poland’s Marcin Wasilewski Trioin the John Field Room. RC
Other Voiceswas once a 10-day snorefest dominated by overly earnest Irish singer-songwriters, but in the past several years this VIP-free Dingle-based event has been transformed into a showcase for the best in interesting up-and-coming and established Irish and international names. TCL

LOWS

Not so much Yusuf Islamhimself (still known to many as Cat Stevens) but the sections of baying wolves that shamed themselves by their deplorable lack of good manners just because the singer-songwriter refused to deliver a greatest hits set. TCL

The furore over the Oasis gig at Slanewas tiresome and predictable. Tiresome because every summer gig season has to have an obligatory Livelinescandal, and predictable because 80,000 Oasis fans in a field just isn’t a recipe for blissful harmony. DOD

The recession’s capacity to shrink live audiencesto a size that prevents some great musicians from taking to the road, particularly those just setting out on a career in music – economics and critical mass, as ever, in conflict. SL

Bob Dylan, the man who changed the face of popular music with some of the most profoundly intelligent music and words ever written, arrived at the O2 in May and shuffled his way through a woeful set that highlighted his shortcomings (the voice is gone, folks) more than his brilliance. As for his seasonal album, Christmas in the Heart, it’s the bad joke of the year. TCL

Pete Dohertywas a pitiful sight on The Late Late Show,a travesty at Oxegen, and a shameful figure at a music festival in Munich when he sang the Nazi anthem, Deutschland Über Alles. What a fool. TCL

Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s failure to harness the full potential of Clasac, the landmark cultural centre in East Wall, Dublin. Is it already a white elephant? SL

It could be argued that in the 1990s, boy and girl bands began the process of convincing teenagers that musical success is all about appearance, and that musical talent comes a distant second to having the right management and stylist. The X Factorcompletes this descent into the seventh circle of musical hell. The poX Factor is a manipulative, hideous piece of programming that takes everything that is wrong with the music industry, shoehorns it into one execrable format, and parades it like a badge of honour. It is as much use to the world as malaria-carrying mosquitoes, but scientists have yet to develop a repellent. LM

Traditional music’s inability to resist the temptation to milk the Riverdancephenomenon for every last drop of Celtic codology: witness the execrable Women of Irelandshow this summer. SL


CLASSICAL

MICHAEL DERVAN

HIGHS

The most spellbinding performances of the year came from the young Russian violinist, Alina Ibragimova, playing solo violin music and concertos by Bach at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival.

Jane O’Leary’s Concorde and Donnacha Dennehy’s Crash Ensemble have had the new music scene to themselves for far too long. Well, that’s what a younger generation seems to think, with a hive of mostly composer-driven new music activityfrom Ensemble ICC, Ergodos, the New Sound Worlds series and various other enterprises, including a series of international portraits by the Louth Contemporary Music Society. So far, the diversification has been all to the good.

The RTÉ NSO is currently without either a principal conductor or a principal guest conductor, and the Ulster Orchestra looks like being without a principal conductor next season. But 2009 was busy with new musical appointmentsin Belfast and Dublin. In January the inspirational John Wilson became principal guest conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. In September the Ulster Orchestra appointed Paul Watkins as principal guest conductor and Christopher Bell as associate conductor. Alan Buribayev (principal) and Hannu Lintu (principal guest) and pianist Finghin Collins (in the new role of associate artist) will join the NSO next September.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra’s artistic director, Anthony Marwood, frittered away three years concocting a lot of programmes at the National Concert Hall that not many people wanted to hear. The current season is not only musically more attractive, but the Dublin concerts have relocated to the RDS Concert Hall, a venue that’s a more appropriate size for the orchestra, and which has been effectively refurbished – acoustically and visually – to boot.

December events get a raw deal in the totting up of annual highlights. I made a mental note last year not to let one particular performance fall through the cracks. Last December’s Messiah, from the Irish Baroque Orchestra and the Resurgam Choir under Gary Cooper, was a treat from start to finish.

LOWS

Just imagine that Bulgaria’s state organisations for the international promotion of tourism and culture made investments in – and the country’s head of state endorsed – an orchestra carrying the name of the Bulgarian capital on the largest US orchestral tour of 2009. And that the orchestra, in spite of Bulgarian conductors and soloists, did not regularly play in Bulgaria, had mainly Irish members (bar two Bulgarians), and used photographs of an Irish orchestra in its publicity? I’ve put the elements of the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra’s 48-gig, January-to-March tour in reverse to explain the ire that this strange venture has created.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra’s summer festival, now renamed after Limerick rather than the Shannon, was not only less international than ever before, but moved to a new venue, the Franciscan Church in Henry Street, which was physically uncomfortable and so acoustically unpalatable it became a matter of jest for announcements from the stage.

The loss of RTÉ’s Living Music Festival, which was cancelled this year. The cancellation was made “with regret, but was unavoidable given the financial challenges facing the organisation”. At least it went out on a high, with last year’s popular and packed-out celebration of Arvo Pärt.


OPERA

MICHAEL DERVAN

HIGHS

The declaration by the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Martin Cullen, that he plans to bring Ireland into line with the rest of Europe by establishing a national opera companyin the capital.
Music apart, there was never a dull moment in John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, as directed at the Wexford Festival by Opera Theatre of St Louis’s James Robinson.

Jean-Louis Grinda’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which came to Opera Ireland from Opéra de Monte Carlo, was handsome to look at (with Chirico-influenced designs by Rudy Sabounghi), and the voices fell gratefully on the ear too (with brothers Paul Armin Edelmann and Peter Edelmann playing Don Giovanni and Leporello, and audience favourites Cara O’Sullivan and Mari Moriya as Donna Anna and Zerlina).

LOWS

The Arts Council has sold opera short for years, but rarely as damagingly as it did this year by its now redundant decision, based on ideas from its opera adviser Randall Shannon, to merge the functions of Opera Ireland, Opera Theatre Company and Wexford Festivalinto a single company based in Wexford. A more hare-brained idea would be hard to imagine.

David Agler’s termas artistic director of the Wexford Festival is proving very hit and miss. The big failure of this year’s programme was director Roberto Recchia’s lame and absurd handling of a double bill (Chabrier’s Une éducation manquéeand Rossini’s La cambiale di matrimonio), which needed especially sensitive treatment. MD

Aidan Dunne’s Visual Art column will be published on Friday

THE CRITICS:

THEATRE PCPETER CRAWLEY MLMARY LELAND JCJANE COYLE PLPATRICK LONERGAN

MUSIC TCLTONY CLAYTON-LEA, LMLAURENCE MACKIN, RCRAY COMISKEY, SLSIOBHÁiN LONG, DODDAVIN O'DWYER

CLASSICAL AND OPERA MICHAEL DERVAN

VISUAL ART AIDAN DUNNE

DANCE MICHAEL SEAVER