Kirkos Ensemble are drawn to the dark side

Classical Music: The ensemble is to give a series of concerts in the dark; elsewhere, street opera proves a slippery business

Opera of a different kind featured on Dublin’s streets over the weekend in Things We Throw Away (above). A public street with pedestrians passing around and sometimes through the performing space is not exactly an easy spot for pop-up opera. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Opera of a different kind featured on Dublin’s streets over the weekend in Things We Throw Away (above). A public street with pedestrians passing around and sometimes through the performing space is not exactly an easy spot for pop-up opera. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

If you’re of a certain age you’ll remember blackouts from the bad old days of ESB strikes. Different areas of the land would take it in turn to haul out the candles or the camping lanterns. Night-time travelling in built-up areas became a high-risk business whenever you were in an area without power.

The Kirkos Ensemble is borrowing the word for a new series of concerts it’s planning to give in complete darkness – or whatever level of darkness can be achieved when you take into account the regulations for the illumination of exit signs, and the lighting needed for the performers to read the music.

Kirkos began life as a student ensemble specialising in contemporary music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. Now that its students are no longer students, the plan is to transform it into a regular new music group, although regular doesn’t seem quite the right description for its new project.

The three late-night Blackout programmes will each be performed twice, on a Friday and a Saturday, on May 8th and 9th, June 12th and 13th, and July 17th and 18th, in the group’s alma mater on Westland Row. Each programme is built around a central work: Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Steve Reich’s Different Trains, and Harry Patch, a new work by Kirkos co-director Sebastian Adams.

Messiaen’s quartet was famously written and first performed in a prisoner of war camp during the second World War. In Different Trains, Steve Reich remembers the trains in which he travelled across the US between divorced parents and the very different trains taking fellow Jews across Europe in the 1940s. And Harry Patch is named after the longest-surviving first World War veteran, who believed “war is not worth one life”.

Each work will be presented in the context of pieces specially written as a response by Kevin Volans, Raymond Deane, Roger Doyle, Gráinne Mulvey, Ed Bennett, Seán Clancy, Tom Lane and Robert Coleman.

Darkness is only one novel element of the “immersive, experiential and multisensory evening” that Kirkos are planning. They’ve also enlisted the pop-up culinary skills of Gruel Guerrilla, which will create menus to complement each programme “using ingredients that thrive and grow in darkness”.

The new project has been supported by a crowdfunding campaign. There are more details at fundit.ie/project/blackout.

Crowdfunding is a modern twist on the venerable tradition of publication by subscription, which composers and others used for centuries. I came across an unusual instance this week, through Jane Chapman’s new CD of William Hamilton Bird’s The Oriental Miscellany, which will be reviewed in The Ticket on Friday. Bird used the subscription model for his harpsichord arrangements of Indian music which were published in Kolkata in 1789.

Back in the 1930s, Artur Schnabel’s pioneering project to record all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas was seen as such a risk that it was set up on a subscription model. And the same applied to the first complete set of Sibelius’s symphonies and the first large-scale recording of the songs of Hugo Wolf.

The subscription idea turned up briefly in relation to opera in Dublin in the early 1960s. My predecessor as music critic of this newspaper, Charles Acton, told me that when he suggested to the Dublin Grand Opera Society that they should put on Britten’s Peter Grimes, Bill O’Kelly of the society replied that if an audience of 500 could be guaranteed, he would do it. Only 30-odd people would guarantee to purchase tickets, so one of the great landmarks of 20th-century opera had to wait until 1990 for a Dublin staging.

 

Discarded skins

Opera of a completely different kind featured on Dublin’s streets over the weekend, when Wide Open Opera and Dumbworld presented Things We Throw Away, five short operas by Brian Irvine, as part of Dublin City Council’s new festival Musictown.

I went to the performance at the junction of Clarendon Row and South King Street on Saturday, where two large loudspeakers, carrying the singers’ amplified voices and the pre-recorded RTÉ Concert Orchestra, were placed against the wall of St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre.

A public street with pedestrians passing around and sometimes through the performance space is not exactly an easy spot for pop-up opera. Street noise fluctuates enough for a satisfactory volume to be difficult to arrive at, and the sweet point between unpleasantly loud and not quite clear enough is almost impossible to maintain.

It was interesting to see the variety of responses to subjects that ranged from a banana seller (with a dancing banana chorus) to an eruption of violence between an elderly couple using walking aids, and a drunken duo in a pub.

Some people sampled the show for the briefest of moments, and then, as if they’d just encountered the worst of smells, turned and walked on.

Others stopped and within a moment their faces lit up with surprise and delight. Phones were out, arms stretched to their limits, vantage points sought. Children seemed to be enchanted at the oddness of it all, seeing it as a kind of busking they’d never come across before. And the fact there were bananas there for the asking added to the attraction.

 

Unorthodox gestures

There were no bananas on offer at the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s latest outing under Jörg Widmann at the RDS on Thursday. But Widmann’s own music includes lots of unorthodox gestures, such as string players’ bows slicing the air to make the sound of wind in his Versuch über die Fuge (Attempt at a Fugue) and morphing effects in his Sphinx Sayings and Riddle Canons between voice, clarinet and piano (often played on the outside of the case as well as on the innards).

Unforgettable in these performances was the crystalline perfection of soprano Claron McFadden.

Framing Widmann’s own pieces were high-octane, edge-of-the-seat performances of Mozart (Don Giovanni Overture and the Adagio and Fugue in C minor), and Mendelssohn’s Reformation symphony, complete with a serpent reinforcing the double bassoon line, as Mendelssohn specified. This, I suspect, is the first Irish outing in modern times for that peculiar-sounding, peculiarly shaped, obsolete wind instrument.

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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