Lack of consistency continues to dog the RTÉ NSO

Lang Lang takes a strict approach to consistency – so is two out of three acceptable when it comes to a concert?

The Michelin Guide's new star ratings for restaurants were announced last week. And everyone who loves to hate the verdicts handed down by the anonymous inspectors seemed ready to comment on them. The folks at Michelin are presumably delighted that their choices can still generate such an amount of news coverage and keep people buying their guides and visiting their website.

The losing chefs, understandably, are as shocked as the winners are cheerful, and there’s always plenty of room for speculation as to why particular establishments are stripped of their star(s) or sometimes even get dropped altogether from the guide.

For the simplest explanation, I would turn to China's mega-star pianist Lang Lang. During an interview with me last year, he identified consistency as a key quality for success.

“The quality needs to be very stable,” he said. “It’s not like, ‘Today I play an exceptional concert, but tomorrow I am tired, I am not happy, so I play a crappy concert’. Every night, onstage, you need to be in the same condition. That is very difficult for a lot of people. A lot of people can play maybe 20 good concerts a year. But if you are giving 100, that’s not enough.”


Translate that into Michelin land, and you’re confronted with the fact that every meal a restaurant serves has to be as good as what’s set out on the table for the Michelin inspector, whenever he or she shows up.

The only time I went for a meal at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, the staff ignored a dietary request that was made at the time of the booking. On the night, the waiter only offered dishes from the menu with particular ingredients removed. To be fair, they did spot the fact that they had one very unhappy diner and tried to remedy the situation. But for me, the damage was done. Lucky for them I don't work for Michelin.

Consistency is an ongoing issue at the concerts of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra; both consistency from week to week, and consistency within the programme of any one evening.

On Culture Night, the opening work under principal conductor was Janacek's often impassioned, Gogol-inspired Taras Bulba. It sounded sometimes anaemic and stilted, as if the music's surges were being constrained and straightened out. And some of the string playing was anything but tidy. The responsive performance that followed, of Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, was like the work of a different band. The soloist, the young German baritone Benjamin Appl, has a vocal presence so arresting it almost seems hypnotic. His voice has something of the effect of a person with a physical beauty you just can't tear your eyes away from.

Buribayev engaged in moments of what you might call interpretative thumbprinting in Dvorak’s New World Symphony, particularly some adjustments of tempo that sounded not quite persuasive. But the performance had an overall energy and freshness that won the day.

Two successes out of three may sound like a reasonable outcome for an orchestral concert. But it should be no more acceptable than a disappointing course at a meal out. Think of all the visiting orchestras, some from centres much smaller than Dublin, that manage the kind of consistency that continues to elude the NSO. Actually, scratch that. Just think of the way the RTÉ Concert Orchestra has got over this particular issue since the arrival of John Wilson as principal conductor at the beginning of last year.

Music in Monkstown

The chamber music festivals in Westport and Killaloe, as well as the piano festival in New Ross (where the 10th festival opens tomorrow night) represent a kind of boutique festival. There was a new addition to the ranks last year, taking place not in a country town but in a Dublin suburb.

The Music in Monkstown festival, which takes place over a weekend in Monkstown Parish Church, was founded by NSO principal clarinettist John Finucane, who also serves as its artistic director, with the redoubtable former RTÉ producer Jane Carty prominent on the organising committee.

My first chance to get to a festival concert was on Sunday afternoon, when Anita Vedres (violin), Malachy Robinson (viola da gamba) and David Adams (harpsichord) offered a programme of Schmelzer, Handel, Scarlatti, Bach and Corelli.

Even on a wet afternoon, the church was bright and airy, the sound quite resonant but not to an extent that swamped the instruments. The lighter tone of the period instruments may well have been a crucial benefit in not triggering the kind of swimminess that’s latent in church acoustics.

The programme was well chosen, the music-making attractive in an understated way. And understatement goes a long way in a work like Handel’s Violin Sonata in D, HWV371, a piece that had been mangled by heavy vibrato and redundant expressiveness from generations of violin virtuosos working with heavy-handed pianists. It was, to use a metaphor beloved of the period players of the 1970s, like seeing an old master with the grime of the centuries removed through restoration.

Unless I’m mistaken, when I was young a higher proportion of Dublin’s concerts took place in the suburbs than is the case now. The opening of the National Concert Hall brought about a centralisation of activity, because of its acoustic, its creature comforts, its bars, the promotion and publicity that come with it, and, not least, the status that attaches to having performed there.

But the first time I heard Saint-Saëns's Organ Symphony live was in a church in Finglas, and the only time I've been to a performance of the oratorio version of Haydn's Seven Last Words was at a church in Deansgrange with John Beckett conducting. It's hard to imagine anyone being brave enough to choose a suburb rather than the NCH for that kind of concert today. Hats off to Monkstown for bucking the trend.