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NSO/Gemma New: You wouldn’t run a soccer team this way. So hats off to the guest conductor

The National Symphony Orchestra churns through an extraordinary number of musicians. The New Zealand conductor rode the beast with some success on Friday

National Symphony Orchestra/Gemma New

National Concert Hall, Dublin

The National Symphony Orchestra is no longer an orchestra in the way it used to be, a group of musicians who work together every week to give a concert. The issue is such a black-and-white one you can figure it out by calculating who has played in which concerts.

Take the numbers from the two most recent NSO concerts I’ve attended, last Friday’s, under Gemma New, and last month’s 75th-anniversary concert, under Lio Kuokman. The historic playing strength of the NSO was 88, more than enough to service both concerts without any extras. But there were 158 names in the combined listings for the two concerts.

More than 50 musicians played in both concerts, and roughly the same played in just one. Even allowing for differences in instrumentation between the programmes, that’s an extraordinary churn of personnel.

If you ran a football team of any colour in that way, with a depleted squad and external replacements coming and going on a regular basis, you wouldn’t expect to win many matches. And the orchestra has been left without the stabilising presence of a permanent leader since the departure of Helena Wood, in 2017.


In the case of the NSO you’re definitely not talking about the kind of scenario that would encourage or develop finely tuned individual or communal musical responses, a well-established cohesiveness about handling different musical styles or, indeed, orchestral excellence of any kind.

What you’re left with is a different kind of thrill: the whiff of danger, the excitement of risk, the headlong thrust of individualism.

On Friday the New Zealand conductor Gemma New rode the beast with some success. The opening work, Ed Bennett’s Freefalling, an RTÉ commission first performed in 2013 (and heard again in 2014 and 2018), is a pretty raw ride. It was inspired by Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking, 39km skydive in 2012, and the composer’s own childhood dreams of falling.

It’s a wall of sound that, through overlaid rhythms, gives the impression of a shuddering machine, and also features intrusive glissandos that add to the adrenaline rush. Under New, the orchestra let it all hang out.

The soloist in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto was the 24-year-old Irish pianist Eoín Fleming, who completed his master’s degree with John O’Conor at Shenandoah University last year. In Beethoven he showed himself to be a capable, sometimes commanding player, but his co-ordination with the orchestra was marred by a tendency to rush, and he showed a fondness for weak phrase endings.

The performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony that closed the concert was more than a little untamed in its brassiness, of which this work has plenty. But it also showed most clearly New’s skills in finely balanced, intimate pathos, especially in the finale.

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor