The Irish Baroque Orchestra’s Musical Joke falls flat

The IBO’s take on Mozart’s Musical Joke trample it to the level of the Dumb and Dumber movies

IBO’s artistic director Monica Huggett suggested that people imagine their performance as ‘musical vaudeville’

IBO’s artistic director Monica Huggett suggested that people imagine their performance as ‘musical vaudeville’

 

Humour is a two-way thing. We’ve all got blind spots for stuff that goes over our heads or beneath our radar.

I’ve never forgotten the experience of going to two films in Dublin cinemas, one Spanish and well attended by Spaniards, the other Danish and well attended by Danes. 

The Spaniards and Danes laughed a lot at times where, to most of the Irish people present, there nothing funny going on. I remember in particular a moment in the Spanish film where the scene shifted to a shot of a television announcer. The hilarity was immediate, before even a word had been spoken. Most of us had no idea exactly what had prompted the laughter.

I also once heard about the experience of an Irish couple who went to an Irish play in London and found themselves a bit embarrassed by laughing so much at so many things that no one else in the audience seemed to find funny.

Beyond humour in the cinema or theatre or between friends, humour in music is a whole other can of worms, kettle of fish, or whatever other inappropriate cliché amuses you most. 

Take Mozart’s Eine musikalischer Spaß, a title which is usually translated into English as A Musical Joke. The response to the piece, which has been described as “a demonstration of how not to compose or perform” certainly ranges widely. 

It’s been called a “long-winded dig at the hack composers and incompetent performers of his day”, a “heavy-handed parody of second-rate musical composition, deadly accurate in its parodies, but somehow not nearly as funny as Mozart’s genuine musical jokes”, and also a “wickedly pointed parody of incompetent composition and performance”. 

 I rang some friends to ask about their favourite humorous pieces and the names PDQ Bach (alter ego of Peter Schickele), Tom Lehrer, Victor Borge and Flanders & Swann all cropped up before anyone got as far as Mozart’s Musical Joke. But everyone agreed that the Mozart needs to be played straight so that the humour can stand on its own. 

 The Irish Baroque Orchestra’s artistic director Monica Huggett clearly disagrees. She programmed the piece in the orchestra’s Masterworks series, and spoke before the performance to explain “we’ve dramatised it a little bit”. She suggested that people imagine it as “musical vaudeville”.

In the event it seemed almost a pity that the performance didn’t actually run to cream pies in the face. That would have been funnier than what was presented — players horsing around with the music on their stands and getting to their feet to take photos of the chancel of St Ann’s Church. What Huggett and the IBO did was take whatever genuine humour there is in Mozart’s Musical Joke and trample it into a level below the Dumb and Dumber movies. 

It might not have been so bad had the playing been better. But the guying of the piece extended to the music-making as well, which attempted to exaggerate the effects in a way that imitated the mauling of punch-lines. And, unfortunately, the unguyed playing of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Beethoven’s Eyeglass Duet was also off colour. As a venture into the chamber music of the classical era this was a bad start for the IBO.

On Culture Night the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra expanded its offering and threw the doors of the National Concert Hall open for two free concerts, one at 7pm and the other at 8.45pm. The buzz from the audience departing the first performance was still well in evidence when I arrived for the second, with people inside and outside clutching branded orange bags and freebies as if they were on the way out from some giant party.

Guest conductor Robert Trevino led full-on performances of Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Romeo and Juliet and Australian composer Matthew Hindson’s repetitive blast, Speed, complete with sliding trombones and high-impact drum kit (the composer’s declared influence in this 1996 piece was techno music). The evening’s greatest musical rewards came from Paul Lewis in a commanding account of the Grieg Piano Concerto. 

Chamber Choir Ireland used Culture Night to offer a challenging programme of 20th- and 21st-century work under guest conductor Nils Schweckendiek. The evening at St Ann’s Church started with Messiaen’s often haunting Cinq rechants, part of his 1940s love trilogy, and ended with the economical, concentrated settings of Rautavaara’s 1973 Suite de Lorca. 

In between came strong performances of Beat Furrer’s Enigma I-IV & VI (2006-13), almost elemental treatments of texts by Leonardo da Vinci, and Per Nørgård’s Wie ein Kind (1979-80), fantastical responses to texts that were written by Adolf Wölfli while incarcerated in an asylum. It was a smart move to open up such a programme to as wide an audience as possible through a free concert on Culture Night. 

The RTÉ Contempo Quartet’s big project of the year is a Beethoven string quartet cycle that’s being presented in four centres, Dublin, Cork, Kilkenny and Limerick, with each concert also featuring a work by an Irish composer. 

The National Concert Hall’s Kevin Barry Room is proving a less than ideal forum for the Contempos, as for other performers. The music-making appears larger than life, a bit like text that’s enlarged,  but not consistently so, by a magnifying glass. 

The most balanced playing was to be heard in the slow movements from the Quartets Op 18 No 1 and Op 59 No 1, and the players gave a committed account of Brian Boydell’s Quartet No 1. But, unless the NCH set about remedying the sound problems of the Kevin Barry Room – restoring standard seating orientation would be a good start – the best experiences of this important Beethoven cycle may well be had outside of the capital.

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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