From intimacy on the guitar, to a percussive musical storm

Roland Dyens was in charming form at the Guitar Festival of Ireland, while Mantra Percussion tried to take the Drogheda Arts Festival by storm

Guitarist Roland Dyens

Guitarist Roland Dyens


The first concert of the Guitar Festival of Ireland was given at Marlay House on Thursday by the French guitarist, composer and arranger Roland Dyens, who, in his late 50s, is the epitome of calculated casual. He sauntered into the room, and went through the motions of sizing up his surroundings before greeting his audience, for which he insisted on a response. In short, he exploited the intimacy of the drawing room in Marlay House to the full.

He chatted between items as if he were catching up with some old friends, and smiled in advance at his own witticisms as a way of prepping everyone for the amusement which he knew was bound to follow. Thinking up clever puns for the titles of his pieces, he said, is a high point in his compositional process and his pleasure in telling the stories behind his works was pretty obvious, too.

The music itself is light, easy on the ear, often playful. The performances were deft and colourful to match, and he inflected everything – a moment of decoration, the tilt and lilt of a melodic line, the balance of a chord – with a degree of subtlety that would be impressive on any instrument. And he made it all sound totally natural on an instrument where coloration is often like a series of artificial effects.

Dyens didn’t just play the audience, but also played the room, showing a full understanding that the intimate surroundings allowed him freedoms that even amplification couldn’t be counted on to deliver in a larger space. His playing became at times like a kind of enchantment, focused not just on sounds and colourings that might have dissipated in a larger space, but allowing listeners the opportunity of experiencing the guitar as though through a special kind of aural microscope, although the only specialnesses were the player and his sensitivity to the particular appeal of the intimate space he was working in.

A musical storm
St Peter’s Church of Ireland in Drogheda, where New York’s Mantra Percussion gave the Irish première of Michael Gordon’s Timber as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival on Saturday, would normally be considered a smallish space for a concert, especially for one by a percussion ensemble. However, Timber , an hour-long piece written for a team of six percussionists playing planks – well, carefully honed two-by-fours, to be exact – might seem a perfect match for it: it is small enough to bring listeners close to the players, and large enough to accommodate a lot of sound if necessary.

I had imagined that the work would be played in the raw, with six players concentrated on their unusual instruments (technically speaking, they were a range of differently pitched simantras, the idea borrowed from the Orthodox Church via the music of Iannis Xenakis), and the musical effects being created through the playing.

The players stood, arrayed in a hexagon, with their simantras on stands in front of them. The listeners were encouraged to move around during the performance, and could even chose to go up close, or even move around behind the players.

In the event, only a few brave souls dared traverse even the side aisles. The audience’s sense of demarcation was not, I suspect, just a matter of the likely disruption of trying to get in and out of the church pews, but rather of the amplification. There were loudspeakers positioned at what came to seem effective markers of a proposed listening space. From where I was sitting, a lot of the sound actually came from behind me, sounding richer, deeper, and louder than most of what I could attribute directly to the players themselves.

The music began in rapid-fire mode, sounding like super-heavy, coordinated rain, a relentless, incessant, rapid rat-a-tat. The curtain of sound did not remain constant, but was given highlights that made it shift and move – literally, given the control through the mixing desk. Think of it as a kind of sonic pointillism, the aural equivalent of the rolling effect of a Mexican wave in a sports stadium.

Once the music moved on from the driven patterns of the opening, the energy seemed to dissipate. It was as if composer Michael Gordon had decided to grip the listener at the start but had used up his best ideas too early. There was nowhere to go but downwards, and the hour came to seem very long.

From plain to profound
The Music in Drumcliffe Festival, held over the weekend at St Columba’s Church, with WB Yeats’s final resting place just outside, this year offered an unusual selection of Yeats settings: Muriel Herbert’s The Lake Isle of Innisfree , Rebecca Clarke’s Shy one , Thomas Dunhill’s The Cloths of Heaven and Benjamin Britten’s The Salley Gardens . Soprano Ailish Tynan, with Finghin Collins on piano, had chosen a sequence that went from the plainly plain to the profoundly simple, Britten’s almost skeletal setting, leaving words and familiar tune almost untouched, as a craftsman’s work might display a perfect jewel.

Tynan was something of a jewel over the weekend, bringing a rare beauty of delivery to the Stefan George settings of the last two movements of Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, a musical landmark in the early 20th-century dissolution of tonality that’s all too rarely heard in concert. The Vogler Quartet’s playing was sober, intelligent, lucid, shining a clarifying light on the music’s knotty arguments.

The Voglers showed a lighter side in Dvorak’s String Quintet in G, written for the unusual combination of string quartet and double bass (Winfried Holzenkamp). The Dvorak quintet is a happy work, the double bass providing a rich underpinning and liberating the cello to undertake a more songful role. It’s a feel-good work that would be better known if its instrumental demands were not so unorthodox.

A blaze of NSO glory
Ailish Tynan was a late stand-in for Mairéad Buicke with the RTÉ NSO on Friday, when conductor Celso Antunes was also standing in, for Pascal Rophé. Antunes is an individualist, engineering frequent adjustments of mood to make the first movement of Franck’s D minor Symphony sound as if it were a sandwich made up of not-quite-connected layers. The playing he secured was first-rate, and he brought real rough-hewn bite to Honegger’s Rugby , a work that sets out to depict what the composer called “the savage, brusque, untidy and desperate rhythm” of the game. Poulenc’s Gloria , with Tynan radiant, and the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir in fine voice, was a blaze of glory.

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