Leading lights let orchestras shine


This weekend Courtney Lewis proved himself a talent to watch out for, while Alan Buribayev brought a rare maturity to the youth orchestra, writes MICHAEL DERVAN

THE PERSON who came to mind when Alan Buribayev conducted the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland at the National Concert Hall on Sunday was the late David Lillis. I met Lillis as a student, when he was the violin teacher of a girlfriend of mine, although I already knew his playing from his concerts – he was the leader of the RTÉ String Quartet of the time. I don’t remember our first meeting, but it must have come about, I’m sure, through my being roped in to play the piano at a violin lesson.

Before I knew it, I was meeting him regularly to play through repertoire with him and ended up being his rehearsal pianist on Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto, a role which delivered me one fateful day to Studio 8 in the RTÉ Radio Centre in Donnybrook, for a session with the late Albert Rosen, then the principal conductor of the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra.

Being with and playing with Lillis was a real education for me. He had worked on the orchestral scene in London in the 1960s, and he loved to recount stories of the great and good of those years, sometimes including details of what went on at sessions that produced recordings I actually knew. But he also taught me about myself. I played better with him than I did with anyone else that I’d worked with up to then.

He could be a nervous performer on the concert platform. But there were no nerves in private. He was rock solid, and, for someone used to playing with fellow students, unbelievably communicative. There was simply never any doubt about what he was going to do. It was as if he locked me into his musical vision in a way that I couldn’t resist. The clarity of his musical intentions made me feel as though he were somehow giving me more time and creating a kind of extra space for me to work in. The subjective expansion of time that I experienced – which had nothing whatsoever to do with the speed of the playing – allowed me greater control over what I was doing.

I thought of David Lillis when Alan Buribayev began Sunday’s concert with the Prelude to Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. It’s a nature prelude in praise of wilderness, and the young players delivered its shimmers, rustles and twitters as if they had a lifetime’s experience of creating atmospheric orchestral textures.

Youth orchestra concerts can sometimes be events where details stand out, with solos from particularly gifted players, or the strength of a particular section drawing attention to themselves. Sunday’s playing was different, offering big-picture performances, where things seemed to balance out. Everyone moved with the rising tide. After the pictorial Rimsky-Korsakov, the numbers on stage were reduced for some sharply etched Mozart (the Flute and Harp Concerto, neatly played by sisters Fiona and Jean Kelly), and, after the interval, a surely paced account of Shostakovich’s epic Tenth Symphony. What Buribayev brought to the youth orchestra’s playing was a quality that’s most elusive for young players: maturity.

There was maturity aplenty on show on Friday, too, when the Belfast-born conductor Courtney Lewis, who lives in the US, made his début with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Most of the audience, I suspect, were drawn to the concert by the presence of soprano Claudia Boyle, whose contribution ran to seven arias, to which were added two overtures and a major symphony.

For my money there were two arias too many in the evening, with Boyle not quite finding her form in her opening pairing of Da tempeste il legno infranto from Handel’s Giulio Cesare and O zittre nicht from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. She hit her stride in Verdi’s Caro nome, delighted in the acrobatics of Thomas’s Que voulez-vous (from La cour de Célimène in which she starred at last year’s Wexford Festival), brought great pathos to Bellini’s Ah! Non credea mirarti, and rollicked through Bernstein’s Glitter and be Gay.

She was at all times well supported by Lewis’s attentive and stylish conducting. If you haven’t registered this young conductor’s name, do so now, because it’s likely you’ll be hearing a lot more about him in the future. His work on Friday showed him to be, by some distance, the best young Irish conducting talent I’ve heard in more than two decades.

The list of his successes in the US is clearly no accident. He is founder and music director of Boston’s Discovery Ensemble (which introduces classical music to inner-city school children and brings fresh repertoire to experienced listeners), associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra and a Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

What made his work with the NSO stand out was the sheer centrality of his approach. The music was the focus, his control of the orchestra just a means of bringing it to life. He made Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony glow as the exciting masterpiece that it is. In fact, he conducted it so well, it is surprising it has taken so long for RTÉ management to have got him in front of an orchestra in Dublin.

The weekend’s Loughcrew Opera Festival brought soprano Norah King to the stage in Ireland, assuming you’re prepared to regard the small platform in Loughcrew’s tent as a stage in the first place. Loughcrew this year dropped home-produced opera in favour of a return visit by Nicholas Heath’s Opera A La Carte.

The opera was Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (given in the original Italian, with a musically effective instrumental ensemble of flute, two clarinets, bassoon and piano), and King was the pert Susanna in a production that ticked all the boxes, but somehow didn’t ever fully come to life.

It was extraordinary to find the audience laughing when the Count (Michael Dewis) forced himself on Susanna on a desk and they laughed again later, when Cherubino (Flora McIntosh) got his head up the skirt of Barbarina (Sian Winstanley). Back in 1991, the Dublin Grand Opera Society’s primly shocked response to a similar scene in Robert Chevara’s production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, was one of the factors that led artistic director Kenneth Richardson to the understanding he had no future with the society. He resigned after what was only his second season.

Sunday afternoon brought the final instalment of contemporary music ensemble Concorde’s Up Close with Music series, triple bills of new music in intimate spaces.

The venue was the Gallery of Photography in Meeting House Square, which seemed to bring listeners about as physically close as you can get to players in a concert. I took in just the first of the three programmes, which offered the intriguingly intertwined lines of Edison Denisov’s Two Pieces for Three Instruments (violin, flute and cello), the often lonely spaces of Henryk Górecki’s Little Fantasia (violin and accordion), and the première of David Fennessy’s Five Hofer Photographs, for solo cello, short, focused, étude-like explorations of instrumental techniques, with some of the photos that inspired them on the walls of the room. This was as good a programme as I’ve ever heard from Concorde.

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