Short, sharp reminders of our Irishness


Two new compositions that are being premiered in Dublin this week show that contemporary classical music can be gloriously accessible, writes ARMINTA WALLACE

SO YOU THINK contemporary classical music is worthy, difficult and dull? No offence, but you need to see a doctor. Time to get your head, and especially your ears, examined. If that doesn’t change your mind, two new works being premiered in Dublin this week surely will. Both are by young composers whose music is gloriously accessible. And though they’re utterly different in style, both pieces pay tribute to aspects of Irish identity of which, given the week that’s in it, we could all do with a short, sharp reminder.

Tarik O’Regan’s Acallam na Senórach, based on a medieval Irish text, was commissioned by the National Chamber Choir for a world premiere at St Ann’s Church on Dawson Street in Dublin on Thursday. Aontachtby David Flynn, commissioned by RTÉ for Martin Hayes with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, will be unveiled at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Wednesday evening.

During a break in rehearsals for another piece by Flynn which will also be performed on the night, Music for the Departed,I ask Hayes whether, even for a soloist of his calibre, it isn’t somewhat unnerving to play in front of a group of professional classical violinists. “Well, I’m not too concerned with myself, in that sense,” he says. “Of course, when you’re sitting in the middle of all this you have the potential to create a train wreck. I just don’t want to be the guy who does that. I mean, I presume I won’t do it at the concert, but I didn’t want to do it at the rehearsal either. That would injure my pride.”

The composer says he hasn’t slept much over the past couple of days. But Flynn praises the orchestra and David Brophy, its conductor, for their meticulous attention to the nitty-gritty of his score. “It’s an arduous task of cleaning up details,” says Flynn. “And they’re coming from a week of playing opera, with Tosca. So it’s a completely different mindset. “Imagine,” he says to Hayes, “you were doing a week of opera coming into this.” “I can’t imagine that,” Hayes admits.

"The new concerto is called Aontacht, which means unity,” says Flynn. It’s thus consciously different from most solo concertos, where the soloist is in competition with the orchestra in a call-and-response kind of way. By contrast, Flynn uses the orchestra as a giant support band, doing back-up and harmony and playing around with harmonic and rhythmic patterns.

“A lot of people think contemporary classical music is what a friend of mine calls ‘Czech film-music plinky-plonk’,” he says. “What we’re doing here is different. It’s bringing two worlds together; taking ideas from the Irish tradition and merging them with a contemporary orchestration. Contemporary without being completely off the wall.” Is this music very different from what, and how, he usually plays? “There was a lot that was familiar,” he says. “But there was also a thing where it pushed me in ways, technically. A lot of third- and fourth-position playing, which doesn’t come up in traditional music very often. And the slow air is a complex piece of music with a lot of parts to it. You don’t learn it in one day, I can tell you that much.” “I wrote it in one day,” Flynn puts in. “Did you? It sounds like it,” Hayes retorts.

Back at the rehearsal the cellos and basses are being put through their paces. It’s an impressive full-on sound, but it doesn’t drown the bell-like clarity of Cahill’s inch-perfect guitar, much less Hayes’s soaring fiddle. A violinist is tapping her foot as they play, her instrument bouncing up and down on her knee all the while.

The double basses are, if I’m not mistaken, having a bit of a boogie. At the end of the session the conductor sweeps his hand around to indicate the soloists, and the orchestra erupts into spontaneous applause.

Contemporary. Classical. QED.

TO SAY THAT Tarik O’Regan’s career is on an upward arc is something of an understatement. Following two Grammy nominations last year for his gorgeous choral album Threshold of Night, 2010 has been a bit of an annus mirabilis for the young English composer. Last month saw the premiere of his Bach-inspired BBC Proms piece, Latent Manifest. He has been nominated for a British Composer Award, which will be presented in London next week. And Heart of Darkness, his opera based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, will open at the Royal Opera House in London next autumn.

Given that he’s making such a name for himself in contemporary music, we might as well look a little more closely at that multicultural moniker. His full name is Tarik Hamilton O’Regan, and his great-great-great-grandfather was the astronomer royal of Ireland William Rowan Hamilton. One of his daughters married a John O’Regan who became archdeacon of Kildare. Their son was educated in Dublin, then moved to Oxford and became master of Marlborough College, a public school in Wiltshire. One of his sons was Tarik’s grandfather. Tarik’s father was born in Sri Lanka, and his mother was born – although her family is Algerian – in Morocco.

Given his eclectic cultural heritage, it should come as no surprise to find O’Regan writing a 60-minute piece for the National Chamber Choir based on a 12th-century Irish text. “I came to Acallam na Senórachthrough a colleague of mine when I was at Trinity College in Cambridge,” he says. “Geraldine Parsons is now at the University of Glasgow, and this is the primary text that she works on. It’s often translated as The Tales of the Elders, but a more accurate rendering would be The Colloquy of the Ancients.”

It tells the story of St Patrick’s interactions with two of the last surviving members of a band of warriors once led by Fionn Mac Cumhaill. “It’s not just a tale of proselytising, of someone coming along and saying, ‘This is the new order.’ It’s a dialogue. For much of the time it isn’t Patrick who’s speaking; it’s the warrior called Cáilte.” Who, of course, would have been several hundred years old by the time Patrick made it to our shores.

“His great age is not explained or justified,” says O’Regan. “I love that. It permits the people who put the text together to include many centuries of oral tradition. There are 200 different stories within the frame narrative, many of which, I imagine, existed long before they were written down in this form. So it’s a vehicle for this earlier form of culture. What I also love is that many of the stories have to do with location. Patrick seeing something and asking, ‘Why is this hill called this? Why is this stream called that?’ Which usually prompts Cáilte to tell a story. So it’s a kind of narrative map of the country.”

O’Regan has scored the piece for choir and acoustic guitar. The latter, he says, isn’t used as an accompaniment; instead, it’s central to the musical action. “I was keen not to write another standard piece for a choir as a block of singers; that’s something I’ve been moving away from generally,” he says. “Because the text is a conversation between two people, or two cultures – or even two concepts of living, one secular and one sacred – I wanted to embody that in the actual instrumentation of the piece. So there are two different lines which are intertwined. And it’s broken up into lots of different sections with lots of solo moments. The idea is that it’s continually shifting and changing.

“I’m always drawn to the interaction between the secular world and the sacred world. To think that Acallam na Senórachhas been around for 800 years is just stunning to me. It’s so advanced, and it’s so delicate and clever, and it’s so respectful of the different cultures. I feel it’s like a very strong warm handshake between two cultures. And we’re there to see it happen.”

Aontachtis at the National Concert Hall tomorrow at 8pm. Acallam na Senórachwith the National Chamber Choir, conducted by Paul Hiller, and Stewart French, on guitar, is at St Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin, on Thursday at 8pm and at Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, on Friday at 6.30pm

Listen up

There are plenty of bits and pieces from Tarik O’Regan on YouTube, including a meltingly lovely Nunc Dimittis. But for a real blast of fresh air, check out the vocal group Conspirare performing the finale of Triptych: Among his musical influences David Flynn lists Paul Simon, New Order and Iron Maiden. See if you can spot them as you listen to cuts from the album Draíochton his website, The opening track, The Tempest in Mali, is a luminous guitar solo.