Classical concerts: how do you attract the aficionados and the fickle?
This is the tightrope walk the RTÉ NSO and Damselfly Trio attempted last week
Pianist Louis Schwizgebel: demonstrated some of the technical pizzazz that helped him place second in Leeds in 2012. Photograph: Marco Borggreve
There is a hazardous tightrope walk in classical concert programming. What music do you present that draws and satisfies not only the committed concert-goer but also the curious outsider or first-timer, or the person with a passing interest who might waver and choose the cinema instead, or the pub, or stay at home with Netflix?
A misstep on this question leaves an empty tightrope vibrating in the sky. I was reminded of this danger twice while at concerts in Dublin last weekend. In the NCH on Friday night, five minutes before the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra took the stage, I happened to hand up my ticket alongside a long-time concert-goer and Friday night regular. He looked a little glum and told me he was finding it harder and harder to pick NSO concerts he wanted to hear. Because of the programmes.
There was no time to elaborate, and we went our separate ways to our seats. If he was referring to that classical tightrope, he has a point. A symphony concert programme is best able to draw both the committed and the fickle if it is logical and self-explanatory, and includes some definite selling point. Several of this season’s RTÉ NSO subscription concerts tick these boxes – whether because of a beloved work, such as the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (November 23rd), or high-profile performer, such as bass-baritone Bryn Terfel (February 15th), or a strong theme, such as the Armistice centenary and the Britten War Requiem (November 9th). Others do not, and with those it’s hard to achieve a full house.
It can even be hard with a strong programme like Friday’s. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue sells tickets, and it was combined with Leonard Bernstein’s music for the 1944 ballet Fancy Free, precursor to the Hollywood musical On the Town. This was followed by possibly the most popular of Bartók’s orchestral works, the Concerto for Orchestra which, because it was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra during the Hungarian composer’s self-imposed New York exile, gave the programme a legitimate and unifying American theme.
Of course, the other key element of a symphony concert programme is the performers. Guest conductor Jaime Martin was at his most persuasive in the Bartók. He ably navigated its decisive, striking mood changes from one movement to the next, and allowed each featured orchestral section to shine where Bartók placed it in the spotlight. Leading the way were the trumpets, trombones and tuba in their suave delivery of the second-movement chorale. He was less effective in the Bernstein whose narrative line lost energy at intervals.
Swiss pianist Louis Schwizgebel demonstrated some of the technical pizzazz that helped him place second in Leeds in 2012, although here it didn’t always help him find a convincing accent for Gershwin’s jazzy score. It was presented in the original 1924 jazz band version which, despite having fewer instruments than the more familiar version for full orchestra, seemed to pose difficulties of internal balance for Martin.
The other concert that wobbled on the programming tightrope was given by the Damselfly Trio. It’s a new ensemble formed earlier this year by Swiss-based flautist Chelsea Czuchra and harpist Lindsay Buffington, and American soprano Liz Pearse. They performed in the Hugh Lane Gallery, whose many attractions include free admission to the Sunday at noon concerts and a consistently high strike rate over the years in their artistic programming. This has earned them a faithful regular audience who seem to attend concerts simply trusting that there will always be something worthwhile. Some of them will also get quietly to their feet and discreetly slip out if disappointed.
More people took this option last Sunday than usual. This was hardly because of the performers, who played to a high standard. Rather, it seemed likely to be the result of their programming, which featured a certain homogeneity of colour, abstraction, astringency and the predominance of atonality. This was a pity, since they were offering music of genuine interest, for example by the American George Crumb (who turns 89 this month) from his quirky and often pictorial Federico’s Little Songs for Children, by the German-American Ursula Mamlok (from Der Andreas Garten) and extracts from the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Comala by Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon from Mexico.
Those who departed early missed the concert’s main event and perhaps also its most approachable music, Buaine na Gaoithe, a song cycle by the Irish composer Ryan Molloy on five poems by Mayo-born Martin Dyar. Molloy sometimes takes an expansive view, for example in the cycle’s opening poem, A Waiting Tree, which opens with a reflective, miniature overture on the harp that then provides a sort of quietly running ostinato as accompaniment to the voice. Although there are seven verses, Molloy doesn’t confine himself to a strophic approach, picking out from the words a particular atmosphere that then determines the distinctive musical character of the verse. At one point the alto flute interposes a high-speed, unaccompanied interlude before the singer resumes. The result is like a little cantata.
Molloy’s idiom is more varied than what was heard in the concert’s first half. Although still sometimes abstract and atonal, it can also be quite lyrical and sometimes programmatic – for example replicating a particular birdsong in A Merlin in the Sheefreys. Dyar’s themes include nature, life and death, and light, to which Molloy – who worked both with Dyar and the members of the Damselfly Trio as he composed – has produced lively, thoughtful and unpredictable responses.