Riverdance: The Music of Bill Whelan


National Concert Hall, Dublin

Riverdance has embedded itself within our psyche, for good or ill, yet it goes nowhere near defining where Bill Whelan, as a composer, has travelled over the past three decades. The National Concert Hall’s expansive programme went some way towards exploring the depth as well as the breadth of Whelan’s work, and in the process, revivified some of his lesser known, but intricately drawn pieces.

Opening with the first and third movements from Whelan’s Connemara Suite, Inishlacken, The Currach and Evening Céilí, fiddler Zöe Conway and Mia Cooper, leader with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, read the traditional and classical elements of Whelan’s work with fluent ease. Later, dancer Mick Donegan used his steps as an additional percussive instrument during An Chistin from Carna. With a chutzpah that went missing from his later performances, Donegan relished the Whelan segue from dance steps to orchestral flourishes, melded with Conway’s solo fiddle, all of which flowed from one to the other with organic ease.

Whelan’s mischievous Jazzical Cyclebike, written for and performed by members of The Crash Ensemble, was a highlight, with Kate Ellis’s cello and Malachy Robinson’s double bass revelling in the circuitous path of the piece. Máirtín O’Connor and piper Maitiú Ó Casaide joined Conway for the finale of The Seville Suite, a bravura melding of Spanish and Irish influences, with a spectacular flamenco from Yolanda Gonzalez Sobrado. Unfortunately, O’Connor’s lithe accordion was somewhat sacrificed to the wider acoustic sweep of the orchestra.

The UCD Choral Scholars tackled Shivna, an intricate take on Mad Sweeney, their careful handling of its medieval Irish led to it shimmering with skeletal beauty.

And then to the premiere of the Riverdance Symphonic Suite. Cinematic in scope, it was as if it was shoehorned into the end of a programme so packed with variety that it struggled to find purchase in the melee, despite conductor David Brophy’s passionate stewardship. Even Whelan’s pièce de résistance, Timedance, lacked the high definition it had in its infancy. More time and a little less distraction from a packed programme may have served this evocative, three-dimensional suite better. Tonight, it served to whet the appetite for another, more fully-realised performance.