The Kevin Barry room gets ready for some fresh experimentation

The NCH room - where the Treaty debates were held - has had a revamp. Will this fix the acoustic problems?

The Vanbrugh Quartet

The Vanbrugh Quartet

 

The National Concert Hall’s Kevin Barry Recital Room is due to re-open at the end of next month. The revamp is one of the capital projects to have been funded in connection with the centenary of the Easter Rising, although the historic association is actually somewhat later. This room is where the meeting of the second Dáil and the Treaty ratification debates were held.

In its musical reincarnation, the room, or rather suite of interconnected rooms, provided a bare-bones experimental space. The acoustics were unforgiving and bone-dry. There were chairs, some lights and one of Dublin’s roughest-sounding Steinway concert grand pianos in a space that otherwise looked like what it was: a lecture room that had been stripped when it was vacated. The sound of traffic leaked in from outside, as did the noise of interval audiences from the NCH’s main auditorium, and sometimes the smoke of their cigarettes.

The upside was that musicians and music that otherwise had no regular home in Dublin could be heard in a single venue on an ongoing basis. There was something of the testing ground or laboratory about it. The only other comparable musical atmosphere I can recall was at the Crash Ensemble concerts at Project @ The Mint on Henry Place.

It’s going to be interesting to see what musical improvements the new Kevin Barry Room will reveal next month. The first concert, on the afternoon of April 24th, brings a continuation of Conor Biggs’s Schubertreise, his one-man journey through the complete songs of Schubert. Aficionados of the series will have plenty to compare between the old venue and new.

The Vanbrugh Quartet begin a new cycle of the Beethoven string quartets with a series of afternoon concerts between May 1st and June 5th. The quartet’s leader, Gregory Ellis, is retiring at the end of the next season, so if you live in Dublin and don’t want to have to travel to hear him in the Beethoven quartets, this is likely to be your last chance.

The quartet will be reprising a number of the Beethoven quartets at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival in Bantry (July 1st-9th), where they will also be heard in Schubert’s String Quintet (with cellist Adrian Brendel, son of Alfred) and Seán Doherty’s specially commissioned 1916 centenary setting of Francis Ledwidge’s Lament for the Poets with German soprano Caroline Melzer.

The West Cork festival has chosen to ignore the composers of the Republic in its 1916-related commissions. Doherty is from Derry, and the festival’s other commission has gone to another Northern Irish composer, Deirdre Gribbin, whose Devil’s Dwelling Place for solo violin will be premiered by Israeli violinist Nurit Stark.

Other Kevin Barry Room concerts feature pianist Michael McHale in the Schubert Impromptus (May 31st, the night Barry Douglas plays the Schumann Piano Concerto with the Brussels Philharmonic under Hervé Niquet in the main auditorium), and three concerts of Bach and his contemporaries with guitarist Redmond O’Toole (June 15th), harpsichordist Malcolm Proud (June 23rd), and the violin and cello duo of Claire Duff and Sarah McMahon (June 30th).

Fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh is the Kevin Barry Recital Room resident artist for this year, and he will team up with musicians of varied backgrounds for concerts on April 28th with Garth Knox; May 19th with Cormac Begley; May 26th with Dan Trueman; and June 15th with Per Oddvar Johansen. And the jazz trio of Gary Peacock, Marc Copland and Joey Baron give concerts on May 12th and Friday 13th.

One change to take note of is that the new Kevin Barry Room evening concerts all have a 7.30pm starting time.

Musical engineering

The old UCD Engineering Library at the back of the National Concert Hall building, which has been pressed into service during the New Music Dublin festivals and for concerts by the Vanbrugh Quartet, is also being renovated.

It is being renamed the Studio, and will not formally re-open until later in the year. But Crash Ensemble’s Free State 9 concert was held there last week, giving some idea of what’s in store.

The space has had a lick of paint (although pipes and cables, newly painted, are still exposed along the walls), there’s a fresh carpet, and new chairs matching those from the John Field Room. There are lighting bars on the walls and rigging around the stage area, with lights and loudspeakers. The ceiling has been raised, though for the Crash gig there was no platform, so sight lines remained poor. And a new fire-escape has been built, bringing safety standards into the 21st century.

The sound seems a little drier and a little clearer than before, but still lacking in focus. It seems like a clear case for some kind of acoustic shell around the performers, to help focus the sound and direct it towards the listeners.

It would be good to see the NCH optimise the acoustics of these new spaces, rather than repeat the pattern of the main auditorium, where major shortcomings remain unremedied after 35 years.

The more interesting pieces in Crash Ensemble’s programme came in the first half. Daniel McDermott’s Grit sounded like a modern-day ground bass, with a pattern that was rising rather than falling, and lots of melodic spray from clarinet and piano treble over a piano that delivered punch-bag chords in the bass.

Garrett Sholdice’s The Root and the Crown, dedicated to the late and much-missed musicologist Bob Gilmore, has something of the air of a spaced-out funeral march about it. It’s mostly calm but has moments that sound almost angry, before it moves into an epilogue of steadying balm.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com
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