RTÉ has been quick off the mark in celebrating the 30th anniversary of the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir. The choir joined the RTÉ NSO at the NCH on Friday for a newly commissioned work, Everyone Sang, by Elaine Agnew, and Edward Elgar's The Music Makers, a 1912 setting of Arthur O'Shaughnessy's Ode, which includes the memorable lines: "We are the music makers/And we are the dreamers of dreams." The choir didn't actually have its debut until June 1985, but the first rehearsal took place on January 9th, 1985, and RTÉ timed its celebration to the day.
Thirty years ago the creation of the choir marked a major upheaval. RTÉ had appointed Colin Mawby as its choral director in 1981 and he quickly set about developing a new choral policy, which was adopted by the RTÉ Authority. Out went the 10-member RTÉ Singers, in came the 17-voice RTÉ Chamber Choir. As well as the Philharmonic Choir, new youth choir RTÉ Cór na nÓg was founded. And the work of the RTÉ Chorus, a professional, project-based group, was revitalised.
The RTÉ Chorus went in the cutbacks in the 1990s, and in a couple of years time the Philharmonic Choir and Cór na nÓg will become the national broadcaster’s longest-surviving choral groups, eclipsing the record of the RTÉ Singers, which was created in 1953 and disbanded in 1984.
There were gains and losses in the creation of the new choir. The reasoning within RTÉ was fairly straightforward. Before the Philharmonic came into being, RTÉ relied on the existing large choirs and choral societies in Dublin, and the standard of those groups was variable. The RTÉ performances of larger choral/orchestral works were broadcast, so the quality issue was a concern for radio audiences. The problems were not new. An earlier RTÉ Choral Society had failed to solve them and had itself been disbanded.
The Philharmonic was effectively planned as the choir of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra (or RTÉSO as it then was), and once it came into play, it largely closed off opportunities for other large choirs to work with the orchestra.
That was a double whammy. Not only did those choirs lose their collaborations with Ireland’s biggest orchestra (and the broadcast opportunities), but they also lost some of their better members to the Philharmonic, as singers pursued positions with what was intended to be the best large choir in the land and its guaranteed connection with the symphony orchestra.
The Philharmonic has had its own ups and downs over the years, but it has generally managed to live up to the vision behind its foundation. It remains the best large choir in the capital, and its special position within RTÉ still makes it difficult for other groups to compete. Special connections with professional orchestras are no guarantee of high standards. Witness the nadir reached by the Belfast Philharmonic Choir, regular choral partner of the Ulster Orchestra, until the appointment of Christopher Bell as its chorus master in 2005.
The RTÉ Philharmonic may be the best group of its kind in the capital. But the even larger Fleischmann Choir, founded in Cork in 1992 by Geoffrey Spratt, has in my experience always had a youthful freshness and an unforced fullness of tone that no group in Dublin has managed to match.
That said, Friday's programme showed that, under its current chorus master, Mark Hindley, standards at the Philharmonic are high.
Agnew's new setting of Siegfried Sassoon's Everyone Sang is a well-thought out work. The poem was a response to the end of the first World War, so Agnew's piece takes in one of the major commemorations of our time. The poetic response is couched in terms of music-making, ending with the sentiment, "the singing will never be done".
Agnew endeavours to embrace both the grimness and optimism of the words, though there was something in the nature of the choral writing that made me think of a school group rather than a large, adult choir, as if she were afraid of being too demanding of the singers. The downbeat character of the ending was also a puzzle.
There were no puzzles in Elgar's The Music Makers, a work famous for self-quotations that have even drawn comparisons with Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. Andrew Litton took the music by the scruff of the neck from the very start in a performance that was viscerally exciting, tender and moving. There was never a fear of the quotations from the composer's more celebrated works unbalancing the piece. Everything was tightly knit into the larger whole. The choir sang as if their lives depended on it, and mezzo-soprano soloist Imelda Drumm was in imposing form.
Litton was an electrifying presence, bringing a range of responses from the players of the RTÉ NSO that made this a concert quite out of the ordinary, in which everything was perfectly in place.
Between the Agnew and the Elgar, Hugh Tinney was the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto in D Minor, one of the composer's darkest concertos. Tinney and Litton approached it as forward-looking music, bringing to it a sense of Beethovenian gravitas and urgency.
On Wednesday pianist Conor Linehan played a programme of Mozart, Schumann, Fauré and Ravel in the NCH's John Field Room. It was an uncompromising selection, with Schumann's daunting Fantasy in C following Mozart's late Sonata in B flat, K570, and two of Fauré's elusive Nocturnes (Nos 4 and 13) leading up to Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin.
Linehan is an unusual recitalist. He’s a genre-crossing musician, and his solo appearances in classical repertoire appear to be events that are there purely for their own sake – choosing music he loves because he wants to play it.
On this occasion he didn’t get into his stride until the evening’s end. The Mozart, Schumann and Fauré were what you might call over-enunciated, with too much detail, not enough flow and too much evidence of the habits of hand and finger winning out over the claims of musical thinking.
And then in the Ravel, everything fell into place with shape and graciousness, as if some barrier between player and music had mysteriously melted.