Musical ups and downs in a year of change and challenge

Year in Culture Review: Key directors stepped down, while performers stepped up in classical music and opera

This year has been rich in turning points. There was the launch of Irish National Opera in January. March brought the news that David Agler, artistic director of Wexford Festival Opera, would step down after the 2019 festival – and also the announcement of the National Concert Hall and Sounding the Feminists' joint project to focus on work by female composers.

The announcement of the €78 million redevelopment and expansion of the National Concert Hall and the publication of the Boaden review on RTÉ’s orchestras both came in April.

News that Eugene Downes would step down as director of Kilkenny Arts Festival after the 2018 festival emerged in May, and Olga Barry was announced as his successor in July. The Royal Irish Academy of Music's €20 million development project was awarded €9 million in public funding in October.

The outgoing chair of the Arts Council, Sheila Pratschke, spoke at the recent launch of Irish National Opera's upcoming six-month season for January to June 2019. Pratschke, who drove the opera funding initiative, spoke of "a renaissance of opera in Ireland in 2019 and in the years to come" and described the company's 2018 programme as "a tremendous achievement".

The formation of INO through the merger of Opera Theatre Company and Wide Open Opera has integrated the artistic planning of full-scale and touring opera in Ireland for the first time, and created Ireland’s busiest opera company – 39 performances of eight productions in 2018, with 32 performances of five productions planned for the first half of 2019. It also created a company which, under artistic director Fergus Sheil, has committed itself to using every opportunity to employ Irish talent.

Repertoire

Wexford Festival Opera did not have such a good year. The closing date for applications for the post of artistic director was July 20th, and no appointment has yet been announced. The 2019 dates (Tuesday, October 22nd, to Sunday, November 3rd) and repertoire (Weber's Der Freischütz, Massenet's Don Quichotte and a double bill of Rossini's Adina and the first performance of Andrew Synnott's La Cucina, and a single concert performance of Stanford's The Veiled Prophet) was not announced until last Wednesday. After the expansion of recent years the 2019 festival will contract to 13 days "in response to customer feedback".

Final-round interviews for the artistic director job finished weeks ago, and the best bet about the delay in announcing repertoire and dates is that the festival held back until after news of its 2019 Arts Council grant before committing to the scale and nature of next year’s offering.

This was a challenging year for Wexford at the box office. The festival, which used to sell out months in advance, had €25,000 of unsold seats just hours before the closing performance of William Bolcom's new Dinner at Eight.

Kilkenny Arts Festival chose what would appear to be a safe option in appointing Olga Barry to succeed Eugene Downes. Barry has been festival producer since Downes’s first festival in 2014, and therefore has intimate knowledge and understanding of the new style of classical music-heavy programming Downes introduced from his very first festival.

Barry’s previous work includes stints with Crash Ensemble and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, though she did not have artistic programming responsibility in either role. It’s going to be interesting to see if she adheres to Downes’s much-praised focus on great male masters and retains his interest in bringing opera to Kilkenny or chooses to strike out in new directions.

Redevelopment

The redevelopment of the Royal Irish Academy of Music will be the last link in a development which will, in not much over a decade, deliver new, up-to-date premises for the CIT Cork School of Music (which opened in 2007), and the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, which is due to move to DIT’s new Grangegorman campus in 2020, a year before the RIAM’s new build is scheduled to open in 2021.

The RIAM project will require temporary relocation, and the expansion of the National Concert Hall – the back wall is to be knocked down, and the auditorium extended in length as far as the site will allow – will bring not only disruption but also closure for a protracted period.

Promoters large and small will be affected, and no body of performers will be more affected than the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, which is actually based in the hall. The NSO, of course, is due to be placed under the remit of the NCH, though details of exactly what that will entail are still pretty skimpy.

Dáil questions from TDs Joan Burton and Niamh Smyth last month brought the revelation that "2020 would be the earliest date for the completion of the proposed transfer". CEO Simon Taylor's best guess for the closure of the NCH is from May 2021 to September 2023. So finding venues for NSO performances during the NCH's closure is going to be an NCH headache rather than an issue for RTÉ.

Highlights of the RTÉ NSO's 2018 concerts included Alexander Toradze in revelatory form in Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No 2 under Daniele Rustioni, a programme of Mozart and Rameau with soprano Anna Devin under Harry Bicket and Britten's War Requiem under David Brophy; Nathalie Stutzmann had another high-achieving year as the orchestra's principal guest conductor.

Baroque

It was a good year, too, for French baroque composers, above and beyond the NSO. Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozená was in fine form in Rameau and Marc-Antoine Charpentier with Le Concert d'Astrée under Emmanuelle Haïm, and harpsichordist Malcolm Proud curated a fine NCH series celebrating François Couperin.

Festival highlights included the powerful Russian mezzo-soprano Lyudmila Shkirtil with pianist Yuri Serov in Sviridov's song-cycle Petersburg at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, Carolin Widmann's totally refreshing account of Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the Irish Chamber Orchestra under Jörg Widmann at Kilkenny Arts Festival, and Robin Tritschler in French songs with Diane Ketler and Schumann's Dichterliebe with Michael McHale at the Westport Chamber Music Festival.

Chamber Choir Ireland and the Irish Chamber Orchestra stole the show at New Music Dublin Defrosted in James MacMillan's Stabat Mater, with the composer conducting, and two months later the choir was conducted by Paul Hillier in David Fennessy's rivetting choral trilogy Letter to Michael, Ne reminiscaris and Hashima Refrain.

The operatic highlight of the year was Irish National Opera's Irish stage premiere of Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle. Joshua Bloom and Paula Murrihy starred with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under André de Ridder in Enda Walsh's moving and thought-provoking production.

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