Back in the National Concert Hall: ‘I want to kneel down and kiss the ground’

Dublin musical venue reopens 18 months after its last live audience on the main stage

NCH chief executive Robert Read, pianist Finghin Collins, violinists Siun Milne and Diane Daly, cellist Isaac Bovyer and NCH chair Maura McGrath at rehearsals on Thursday for the first concert with an audience at the National Concert Hall since the pandemic began. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

As the day heads towards evening, they drift towards the front steps of the National Concert Hall (NCH). Couples and small groups, putting on masks, Covid certs at the ready, all set for the first night back at the NCH with a live audience since the pandemic started, following recent easing of live performance restrictions. There’s a bit of a buzz and an air of giddiness.

It’s precisely 18 months since the last live audience for the main stage, for Bach Collegium Japan on March 9th, 2020. It’s also 40 years to the day the National Concert Hall first opened, on September 9th, 1981.

The return performance in 2021 is by the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the Libra Ensemble and soloist, pianist Finghin Collins.

There are many changes. There’s no box office and staff scan tickets and Covid certs outside before the audience members are ushered inside. Barman Rhys Duff is getting used to table service. He says: “It’s weird being back.”

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NCH’s main auditorium ordinarily seats 1,200, and while current regulations allow 60 per cent capacity (with audiences vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19). It is opting for a maximum of 400 for the time being, to allow for at least one-metre distancing.

Without tickets

Susan and Jim Pates, visiting from Virginia in the US, have come without tickets, and are hoping to buy some. Without a box office it is proving difficult, but the staff sort them out. They’re being careful, I explain. “We’ve been careful for a year and a half,” says Jim.

Patrick and Joan Black aren’t apprehensive – “not in the least” – about going back to live performance. “I feel we’re getting our lives back,” says Joan.

Four young friends including Jess Wyer and Mark McCarthy came at the last minute. They all play music. What does tonight mean to them? “I’m getting emotional,” says Hannah Jacob. “It’s like growing up, putting live music back in our lives,” says Ciara Lambkin.

Irish Chamber Orchestra chief executive Gerry Keenan says the musicians are thrilled. “It’s just great to feed off an audience, to be back is outstanding.”

Director Patrick Mason says the return of live performance is “a relief. It has been a disaster for the performing arts, for actors, musicians, directors. There’s a lot of long-term damage. It’ll take time to recover.” He and his husband, Sean McCarthy, are here tonight because of long associations with the chamber orchestra. “They’re one of my favourite bands,” says Mason. Fellow director Tom Creed is breaking from rehearsals (Mark O’Halloran’s new play Conversations After Sex, headed for Dublin Theatre Festival). “I’ve missed that sound, of live music.”

Opening night

Music critic Pat O’Kelly was here for NCH’s opening night 40 years ago. “I remember the general air of excitement, the historical occasion.” The first programme had an all-Irish cast. “Not sure if Louis Brown is still with us. Certainly Violet Twomey is, but both Bernadette Greevy and William Young have died. Colman [Pearce] is still going strong.”

NCH’s chief executive Robert Read says he is “really thrilled”  the concert hall is opening its doors. “This long-awaited return to live music is momentous not only for venues, but for musicians and audiences.”

NCH has just announced a lineup of more than 30 concerts before December, called Refractions, to celebrate the resumption of concert life, with classical music by leading Irish ensembles, the Tradition Now series, and Treaty: Songs, marking the 100th anniversary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

In the foyer people are spread out but there is palpable excitement. Two Noels – Buckley and Drumgoole – are heading expectantly for the stalls, a sparse scattering of audience. “When is the National Symphony Orchestra coming back?” wonders Drumgoole. It’s good to be here. “I want to kneel down and kiss the ground,” says Buckley. Then adds: “Except it’s not really recommended.”

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times