God knows what Gerald Barry might come up with if he were ever given a chance to design a fairground ride. There's a fair chance he might want to design trapdoors that would operate in mid-air or find some other way of letting go of the riders when they are already upended.
Composer, conductor and leading Barry fan Thomas Adès conducted the British premiere of Barry’s Piano Concerto in the summer of 2014. In advance of the performance he tweeted two pages of the score (pp78-79) with the message: “Allegedly modelled on a washing-machine programme. Here’s the spin cycle.” He may well not have been joking.
The 2012 concerto was co-commissioned by the Bayerischer Rundfunk's musica viva concerts and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It arrived in Ireland for the first time at the NCH on Friday, courtesy of Hugh Tinney and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Cristian Macelaru.
It’s the kind of music you might imagine Richmal Crompton’s William wanting to write, had he ever had the desire and the skill to compose a concerto.
There are fistfuls and armfuls of clusters in the solo part, lots of ramped-up, bass-rich, treble-bright banter from orchestra – Barry likes to leaven his work with wit – and frequent suggestions that something familiar is struggling to be recognised in the middle of the melee. There’s even a second piano in the orchestra, which can variously buttress the solo part or give the soloist a moment of respite.
Soloist and orchestra spend a lot of time in what you might call disconnected or distracted conversation, and sometimes the solo writing diverts into what sounds like the practising of technical passage work. Surprise and shock value were always to the fore in Friday’s high-energy performance.
Shock value was also important in NI Opera’s staging of Puccini’s
at Belfast’s Grand Opera House as part of the Ulster Bank International Arts Festival over the weekend. NI Opera’s co-production with the Staatstheater Nürnberg and the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse was directed by Calixto Bieito, with the Belfast revival in the hands of Lutz Schwartz.
Irish opera-goers who got to see Bieito's productions of Bizet's Carmen in Dublin and Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus in Belfast in 2002 will know the Catalan director can be relied upon to cut his own particular way through any opera he takes on.
His Turandot, with striking designs by Rebecca Ringst (set) and Ingo Krügler (costumes), is set in a kind of despotic oriental factory. It looks like a doll factory, but many of the stacked boxes are branded Mediorgan, and a scene in which dolls' heads are smashed on the ground produces blood.
Sure, the original with its fairy-tale “legendary times” setting is predicated on the abuse of power. Bieito’s conception not only intensifies this, but by stopping the work where the ailing composer himself did, the planned fairy-tale redemption of victim and abuser (which is usually heard in a completion by Franco Alfano) is excised completely.
NI Opera's production, sung in William Radice's English translation (mostly very difficult to decipher) was double cast. The leads on Saturday were all strongly taken, with Orla Boylan consistently imposing as the heartless Princess Turandot. The relationship between underdogs Marc Heller's Calaf and Anna Patalong's Liù seemed much deeper than Calaf's longing for Turandot.
There were stalwart contributions from Stephen Richardson as Timur and Christopher Gillett as Emperor Altoum (the latter clad only in a nappy), as well as from the trio of Ping, Pang and Pong (Paul Carey Jones, Andrew Rees and Eamonn Mulhall), who were updated to military-style lackeys.
The large chorus, some of whom spent time being stripped down to their underwear, sang with real gusto, and conductor David Brophy’s approach (with the Ulster Orchestra in the pit) was stiff and chilling to match what was being represented on stage.
Norway’s leading pianist
Leif Ove Andsnes
returned to the NCH on Thursday for a programme that included the largest selection of Sibelius’s piano music that I’ve ever come across in concert in Dublin, a set of three pieces named after Kyllikki, a character in the
epic, and others with names inspired by nature such as The Birch, The Spruce and Spring Vision.
Sibelius, whose piano output runs to five well-filled CDs (6½ hours of music), seems to have been anything but dextrous when it came to piano music. It's as if there were something about piano sonority that he just didn't get, and even in hands as expert as Andsnes's, the music sounded awkward.
Andsnes is a scrupulous player, who strives to realise minutiae that others simply gloss over. It was a great pleasure to hear Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin played with such fidelity to the printed score, even if the music-making did come across more as studied than spontaneous or deeply felt.
It was the most abstract of the pieces, three of Debussy’s Études, which came across best, Andsnes’s meticulous delivery highlighting the forward-looking nature of the music and making one wonder afresh at where Debussy might have taken listeners had he survived more than the three years he was to live after he had written them.
And on Sunday afternoon, mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, with Dearbhla Collins (piano), took ownership of the NCH. Erraught is a performer whose manner declares straight away how delighted she is to be on stage, and the prospect of everyone else's enjoyment also seems part of that delight.
There was, she said, no pattern to her choice of songs by Dvorák, Brahms, Wolf and Copland, other than that they were some of her favourite songs. Collins’s playing may at times have been a bit intrusive, but the afternoon’s message of singing for pleasure was fully communicated. It’s the intricate tracery of the group of songs by Wolf, a composer who could compact a whole world into just a few minutes, that will linger longest in the memory.