Acoustic adventures at four Irish venues ranging from the muffled to the magical

At four recent performances given in spaces not designed for music, the contrasting fortunes were profound

‘Of all the arts centres and theatres outside of Dublin where I’ve heard OTC productions, the Solstice [above] in Navan is in a league of its own.’ Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

‘Of all the arts centres and theatres outside of Dublin where I’ve heard OTC productions, the Solstice [above] in Navan is in a league of its own.’ Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

Music Network’s December 10th concert was one of those annual thank-yous to stakeholders and friends. On December 13th the Crash Ensemble played three works by The National’s much-lauded guitarist Bryce Dessner, as part of a weekend celebration of the Brassland label at the National Concert Hall. That evening Opera Theatre Company closed its nationwide tour of The Elixir of Love (Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, sung in English) at the Solstice in Navan. And on Sunday, December 14th, the 250th anniversary of the death of Jean-Phillips Rameau, giant of the French baroque, was commemorated at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.

It was only after I had been to all four performances that I began to think about the fact that none of them was given in a space specifically designed for music. Yes, Crash’s concert was part of an NCH promotion, but the performance took place in the former UCD Engineering Library at the back of the building (the audience was shepherded the long way around to that space, to avoid interfering with a Frozen singalong in the main hall). Music Network’s presentation of the Trio Con Brio Copenhagen was given in Smock Alley. The Elixir of Love was in the Solstice Arts Centre in Navan.

I didn’t go to The Elixir of Love with the intention of reviewing it; the show’s original run in Northern Ireland was covered last year in these pages by David Byers.

Of all the regional arts venues built around the country in recent decades, Solstice is the one that seems best at accommodating opera. Its auditorium departs from the thoughtless, soulless black-box model that seems to have been the Irish norm for far too long. It has an interesting asymmetric seating layout, the floor is not carpeted and the sound of voices and instruments is alive rather than muted or muffled.

Of all the arts centres and theatres outside of Dublin that I’ve heard OTC productions in, the Solstice is in a league of its own. There’s just one comparable venue for opera in the capital, the theatre at The Helix, which, sadly, gets little operatic use these days.

The Solstice, of course, is an actual theatre, as is the lovely, atmospheric space of Smock Alley. Theatres are usually designed to favour the speaking voice over any kind of music. And Trio Con Brio Copenhagen’s programme included a work, Sally Beamish’s The Seafarer, that combined a piano trio with a narrated poem, Charles Harrison Wallace’s translation of an Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book.

I didn’t warm to Beamish’s handling of the text, and would have preferred the words or music separately. And I was surprised that, even with amplification, the resonant voice of Barry McGovern was at times drowned into indecipherability by the instruments. A strange outcome for a performance in a theatre.

The Engineering Library is a derelict barn of a place, into which a platform and seats have been put. When Crash do their amplified act there, I sit as far away as I can. When the Vanbrugh Quartet played there last month, I tried out three different locations. Nowhere, sad to say, is the sound at all good. Reverberation rules. Spoken announcements are hard to decipher. And the music-making comes across as blurred, although it’s clearer when amplified. I’m sure the careful placement of some sound-absorbing materials would make a world of difference. Let’s hope someone has the vision to try this out.

I was rather surprised to see Crash fighting nature by trying to put on some kind of lighting show in a venue with natural light streaming in. Old habits die hard.

The Hugh Lane Gallery, where on December 14th violinist Maya Homburger and friends celebrated Rameau in the context of Couperin and Marais, is a visually brighter and even more reverberant space than the Engineering Library. The acoustic took some getting used to, with Sébastian Marq’s light-toned flute and recorder playing losing out to the stronger tones of Maya Homburger’s violin and Nicholas Milne’s bass viol.

 

Musical pillage

The Hugh Lane concert, given as one of the gallery’s free Sundays at Noon series, is a special case in the cultural life of the country. More than any other gallery it has allied itself to the fondness that galleries around the world have long shown for embracing music in their thinking. The Hugh Lane is a gallery, and it’s making the best of the space that it has.

Music Network in Smock Alley and Crash at the Engineering Library are a matter of needs must. The former library comes into play because the National Concert Hall does not have a fully suitable space for smaller events. And Music Network is not spoiled for choice when it comes to chamber music events in Dublin.

The Musick Hall on Fishamble Street, where the premiere of Handel’s Messiah was given in 1742, is long gone. But the Rotunda Assembly Rooms, in which the young John Field made his official debut in 1792, still exist on the southwest corner of Parnell Square and North Frederick Street. The Ancient Concert Rooms on Pearse Street, a mainstay of Dublin musical life in the 19th century, and a place where both John McCormack and James Joyce sang, are also still standing. Both venues were known to generations of Dubliners as cinemas: the Ambassador and the Academy. It seems little short of a scandal that a city with no chamber music venue should have failed to return either of these buildings to their former musical uses. Given the fame of Field, McCormack and Joyce, there’s probably even a cultural tourism angle to be developed.

But then, we live in a country where the birth of the State brought about a major act of musical pillage. In 1922, one of the capital’s major musical venues – the lecture theatre in Leinster House, which was used for concerts promoted by the Royal Dublin Society –  was taken over to be the debating chamber of the nation’s parliament.

 

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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