RTÉ takes a fresh approach to new music

Can the Music of Our Time series at the NCH remedy the weaknesses of the national broadcaster’s long-standing approach to new music?

Music of Our Time, a new lunchtime concert series at the NCH from, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, offers recent music, including a programme devoted to works by composers who haven't written for orchestra before. The new pieces, by Amanda Feery, Eric Skytterholm Egan and Scott McLaughlin, will be heard at the NCH on May 16th.

No organisation in Ireland has done more for classical music than the national broadcaster, which has supported music and musicians from its foundation as 2RN in 1926 right up to the present. Its first director of music, Vincent O’Brien, created a small studio ensemble that in the 1930s grew into an orchestra, and in the 1940s became the orchestras we know today as the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

RTÉ has long had a family of music groups, choirs and a string quartet. An important international musical reach comes through its membership in the European Broadcasting Union and its participation in the International Rostrum of Composers, an annual new music platform through which radio stations give awards for new music and exchange material for broadcast. And the streaming of RTÉ Lyric FM online now effectively gives the broadcaster a global reach.

Ironically, however, new music is the area in which RTÉ's programming, both in concert and over the air, has been weakest. So Music of Our Time looks like it is intended to remedy a number of long-standing shortcomings. There's the encouragement of composers who are new to orchestral writing, with mentoring from David Fennessy. And there's the simple fact that a number of works have been selected for second or third hearings.


Functioning repertoire

For far too long RTÉ has, with few exceptions, interpreted its obligation to Irish composers as extending to the commissioning and premiering of new work, not the testing of that work over time through repeated hearings. The notion of developing a functioning repertoire of Irish music seems to have been absent from the thinking of the NSO, unless you want to interpret the profile provided to the work of Shaun Davey and Bill Whelan as aesthetic judgments rather than commercial decisions.

Beyond that, there is the fact that no outside agency seems to have been involved in the decision to give Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's Circle Map (2012) its Irish premiere in the opening concert.

The context for all of this goes all the way to the opening of the National Concert Hall in 1981. The RTÉ SO’s free concerts in the St Francis Xavier Hall were not carried over to the new venue, and RTÉ discovered that the audiences who had enjoyed the wide-ranging repertoire of free studio concerts were not prepared to dip into their pockets for the privilege of hearing rare and adventurous repertoire.

It took about 20 years for RTÉ to grasp the nettle of revisiting the concept of free concerts, and when it did, it farmed out the repertoire decisions to composers, much as the NCH would also do in its Composers’ Choice series.

It’s good that key artistic choices about new repertoire have been taken back in-house.

Linda Buckley's Chiyo, conducted by Gavin Maloney in the first of the Music of Our Time concerts, was inspired by the work of the 18th-century Japanese poet, Chiyo-ni. The music is made up of contrapuntal layers of very carefully restricted pitch material. One of the ideas behind the piece is that fragments of the material will emerge from time to time to reveal "the hidden beauty of things".

The layering brings to mind moments from Arvo Pärt, although without the clarity of pattern the Estonian favours. The sense is of drift rather than definition. What sets Buckley’s piece apart is the way it essays a style that almost attempts to paint white on white.

Chiyo was premiered at the NCH in Dublin in 2011 and Kaija Saariaho's Circle Map in a former gas factory in Amsterdam the following year. The two works are worlds apart in complexity of texture and luxuriousness of timbre. Saariaho's piece incorporates six quatrains by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, read, in Persian, by Arshia Cont. The composer has added titles not in the original: Morning Wind, Walls closing, Circles, Days are Sieves, Dialogue, Day and Night and Music.

The electronically transformed words do not so much sit on top of the music, as a vocal or instrumental line might, but are infused into the orchestral sound, colouring it like a kind of mysterious dye. The transformations of the spoken words extend even to the point of changing the pitch to appear to change the gender of the reader.

The overall effect of the piece is consistently sensual, heady and full of exquisite moments. Saariaho has taken one of the greatest challenges – the combination of spoken word and music – and created an inviting, intoxicating blend.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com