John Buckley’s enduring boyish enthusiasm for scintillating sounds

The composer compiles a classic Horizons programme at the NCH; and NI Opera bares all, with mixed results

John Buckley is one of the most fastidious craftsmen, and the orchestra gives him the greatest palette

John Buckley is one of the most fastidious craftsmen, and the orchestra gives him the greatest palette

 

The featured composer for the last of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s Horizons concerts (NCH, February 3rd) was John Buckley who compiled a classic Horizons programme: a work by a master he reveres (Elliott Carter), a new piece by an Irish colleague (Jerome de Bromhead) and two works of his own.

Among Irish composers, Buckley (63) is one of the most fastidious craftsmen, and the orchestra gives him the greatest palette with which to indulge a distinct fondness, and sometimes even a boyishly extravagant enthusiasm, for instrumental brilliance and scintillating sounds. Virtuosic coruscations and cascades can almost be taken for granted in Buckley’s orchestral music, in the way a Scottish accent is inevitable in whatever role Sean Connery undertakes.

Buckley wrote his first concerto in 1992, when he won a competition to write a concerto for the then new Kenneth Jones organ of the National Concert Hall. He has since added concertos for alto saxophone (1997), bassoon (2001), flute (2006) and violin (2008).

The recent NCH concert saw the Irish premiere of the Violin Concerto, featuring Gwendolyn Masin, the violinist for whom it was written. It’s what you might call a respectful piece, at all times taking the audibility of the soloist into account. There’s real dialogue, in spite of the richness of some of the orchestral writing. And there’s an extended cadenza providing a solo platform, just the way the great 19th-century masters did.

The performance was respectful as well. Masin took a safe and sure, straight-line approach; conductor Gavin Maloney kept the orchestra well reined in. Perhaps the piece suffered from coming after the altogether freer flight of the 1999 Camerata Ireland commission A Mirror in the Light, which has more the atmosphere of a showpiece than the concerto.

Jerome de Bromhead’s new A Lay for a Light Year has already been recorded for issue on CD, and here received its first public performance. The composer describes it as “a short tone poem intended to express feelings about what we see far away, and therefore, long ago”. It’s an exuberant melange of a work that seemed to deal more with the here and now than the far away, save in the catholicity of its material, which embraced commonplaces of the past and overlaid them with a kind of magpie freedom.

The concert opened with a 2007 work, Sound Fields, by the late Elliott Carter. It’s an astonishing piece for a composer who was just shy of his 100th birthday, stepping away from his familiar style and into a world with gently moving masses that brought to mind something of the atmosphere of Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question a century earlier.

There was new music the following day from the Irish Chamber Orchestra, in the form of a work commissioned from the Cork-trained composer Sam Perkin, who is currently continuing his studies at the Conservatoire National Superérieur Musique de Lyon in France.

Perkin’s new Nimbus, directed from the violin by the orchestra’s leader, Katherine Hunka, opens in a world of delicate, shimmering sonorities, and builds up an expectation that something – a melody, perhaps – is trying to emerge from the changing shapes. That’s not what happens, although the music does become more cogent, more directed and more purposeful. In this first performance, the process rather seemed to lose steam, so that the piece effectively overstayed its welcome.

The ICO has shown what I would regard as an unhealthy obsession with arrangements for a number of years now. Two featured in this latest concert: Schumann’s Cello Concerto in a strings-only version by Florian Vygen and Alexander Kahl; and Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, arranged for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai as the Chamber Symphony, Op 110a.

In both cases you get what are effectively different pieces. The Schumann doesn’t benefit at all from the reduction of colour and contrast, and even the excellent Hungarian cellist István Várdai was hampered by the monochrome effect of Vygen and Kahl’s intervention.

The Shostakovich, one of the composer’s most powerful chamber works, is transformed, as it were, from the private into the public arena, and Hunka and her players drove the music with at times vehement virtuosity. Their handling of the composer’s early Prelude and Scherzo for string octet, which opened the concert, sounded, by contrast, as someone colourfully put it to me, decaffeinated.

 

Courage and controversy

NI Opera, just a couple of years old, stands to put itself in the record books as one of the bravest operatic start-ups ever to work in Ireland. It may have a small budget, but its output is often courageous (it includes the Irish premiere of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest), and the company is not shy of stirring up controversy.

NI Opera has a PT Barnum-like nose for publicity angles. People who had purchased tickets for last weekend’s first Northern Irish production of Richard Strauss’s Salome received an email signed by the company’s director, Oliver Mears (who also directed the production), in advance of the first night.

“Over recent weeks,” Mears explained, “the dancer and movement director have been rehearsing in London, and, as a result, the content of the Dance of the Seven Veils has been enhanced. The dancer playing Salome will now appear nude for the last ten seconds of the Dance. This change represents Salome in an image of stark vulnerability. We believe it adds significantly to the artistic value of the performance. As you have purchased tickets before this change was introduced, I wanted to make you aware of the development before your attendance at the Grand Opera House next week.”

In the event, it was an extremely odd Salome. The setting was relocated to the American south, recent enough to have a an outdoor oil tank for the unfortunate Jokanaan (the imposingly full-voiced Robert Hayward) to be incarcerated in, guarded by two rifle-touting louts.

I suppose the intention was to convey a kind of 20th-century lawlessness that might correspond to the abuse of the divine right of kings. But for me it made something almost everyday out of the exceptional. The same has to be said of conductor Nicholas Chalmers, who found too much tensionless calm in the smouldering ferment of Strauss’s score.

This left a heavy burden on the singers, which Hayward bore easily. Michael Colvin’s Herod found moments of real menace, and Giselle Allen’s Salome rose well to the challenges of her final scene, besotted with the severed head, and covered with stage gore.

And the final 10 seconds of motionless nudity? Well, the bare explicitness didn’t match the strongest moments of seductive invitation or eroticism in the actual dance, for which Hayley Chilvers neatly swapped places with Giselle Allen.

 

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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