One small step for man, one giant leap of a musical kind

How to soundtrack Felix Baumgartner’s extraordinary near-space skydive? Ed Bennett has an explosive idea

Felix Baumgartner steps into his four-minute freefall from the stratosphere

Felix Baumgartner steps into his four-minute freefall from the stratosphere


Ed Bennett’s new Freefalling, an RTÉ commission which opened the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s season at the National Concert Hall on Friday, is a response to the record-breaking, 39km skydive made by Felix Baumgartner in 2012.

It is, as you might expect, a rush of a piece, even if Bennett says his piece actually has as much to do with his own childhood dreams of falling as it does with the specifics of Baumgartner’s spectacular journey. The fact that the roughly 10-minute duration of Freefalling seems to match the timing of Baumgartner’s descent, however, is surely no accident.

Bennett’s piece, which is built of pounding pulsations of massive sound, with screaming high winds and the incessant slow swerve of brass glissandos, is by no means the first to celebrate this particular kind of achievement.

Within months of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo crossing of the Atlantic in the Spirit of St Louis, the New York Philharmonic had premièred James Dunn’s symphonic poem We, and Serge Koussevitzky had conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Bohuslav Martinu’s La Bagarre, which was more concerned with the commotion caused by the great aviator’s landing in Le Bourget. Two years later, Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith collaborated on Lindberghflug, a radio cantata setting Bertolt Brecht’s Der Ozeanflug.

The early decades of the 20th century brought other celebrations of air travel. George Antheil (who later wrote music for Yeats’s Fighting the Waves at the Abbey Theatre) wrote an Airplane Sonata in 1922, Joseph Schillinger an Airplane Suite in 1929, and the peculiarly-titled Flivver 10,000,000, a Joyous Epic, by Frederick S Converse, was a celebration of travel on the ground, sparked by the slogan “The 10 millionth Ford is now serving its owner”.

Prokofiev (in Le Pas d’Acier, 1927) and Mossolov (in Zavod, The Iron Foundry, also 1927) both sought to bring the sounds of factories and industrialisation into the concert hall via the orchestra, and the tradition of celebrating modern industrial achievements is best remembered in Honegger’s Pacific 231 of 1923 — the title is a reference to a locomotive.

Musically, Bennett’s Freefalling seems to fit neatly into the general tradition of celebrating modernity with a full-on approach to the resources of the orchestra. He certainly left his listeners with the kind of ringing in their ears and the sense of vertigo that you might expect from a protracted fall, although his ending was as gentle as any skydiver could ever wish for.

English pianist Freddy Kempf offered a big-boned, high-stress, high-effort account of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, with some moments of vehemence making him seem as if he were almost out of sorts with his instrument. It was the kind of high-octane performance that audiences love, and Friday’s listeners responded with the expected enthusiasm.

Principal conductor Alan Buribayev patiently kept the pressure up in the Bennett, and was a strong partner in the Rachmaninov. In the 1947 version of Stravinsky’s early ballet Petrushka he revelled in the bustle of the crowd scenes, the grotesquerie, and the sheer colour. But there were times when the outlines were not quite sharp enough and the perspectives seemed rather flattened. The pathos that is such a key element in the music remained understated.

Something completely different
Gábor Takács-Nagy’s mostly Haydn programme with the Irish Chamber Orchestra at the RDS the previous night could hardly have been more different. And it wasn’t just a matter of the style and period of the music, but the specificity of the musical approach.

It was almost as if the very first note of Haydn’s Symphony No 49, subtitled La passione, had been so carefully gauged for colour, tone, grain, weight and mood, that the essence of this dark work was encapsulated within it.

In a pre-concert talk, Freddy Kempf had elaborated on his experience of directing Beethoven concertos for the first time from the keyboard, something it seems he had long wanted to do, but bided his time until he felt completely ready.

He spoke about his experience of something not far from terror when dealing with the orchestra on its own for the first time. Instead of waiting at the keyboard while the conductor handled the run-up to the piano’s entry, he now had to do this himself. And, as he put it, the orchestra would play in neutral shades, without any particular character, until he showed them exactly what it was that he wanted.

Takács-Nagy, I suspect, is a man who’s never been shy about putting his own views forward. In his early violin-playing days, he was one of the most distinctive of string-quartet leaders. As a conductor, he embraces music with the same kind of fearless initiative: he is emotional, often edgy, never dry or detached. And in minor-key Haydn it’s an approach which ensures that, literally, there’s never a dull moment. On Thursday, the members of the Irish Chamber Orchestra responded to him with an almost super-human alertness.

The evening’s soloist, the Hungarian cellist István Várdai, is clearly a young man to watch. He played two concertos – CPE Bach’s in A, Haydn’s in C – with a rare kind of balletic grace, and took on some of the fastest passages at faster than usual speeds, as if racing on tip-toes, yet making every single note sound with clarity.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of the late John Ruddock, concert promoter extraordinaire, who first brought the Takács Quartet to these shores back in the 1970s. Takács-Nagy and Várdái offered as a single encore one of his favourite pieces, Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile, which they delivered with a melting, sighing beauty.

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