The landmark musical celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising was a specially commissioned cantata. Brian Boydell's A Terrible Beauty Is Born was premiered by Our Lady's Choral Society and what was then the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra under Tibor Paul on Easter Monday 1966.
RTÉ has not yet announced any specifics about its musical plans for the centenary of the Rising, although it has established a committee to suggest works for a multi-concert celebration of the Irish music written over the last 100 years.
It’s an interesting idea and potentially a very valuable one. Quite apart from anything else, it will allow RTÉ, which has charge of the only professional symphony orchestra in the country, to unravel some of the damage it has inflicted on Irish music by failing to live up to one of its primary responsibilities towards Irish composers.
RTÉ is not blind to the obligations that come with being the custodian of a publicly subsidised, full-time large orchestra. It is obvious that RTÉ needs to encourage the composition of new work by Irish composers and to provide a platform for it. And the RTÉ NSO does this. It commissions new work. It performs new work. The works it performs get broadcast, and selected works have made it on to CD.
The problem lies elsewhere. After the premiere, it shows little or no interest in providing further concert performances. It’s all a bit reminiscent of Thomas Beecham’s joke about the Royal Albert Hall before it underwent acoustic treatment to dampen its notorious echo. The Albert Hall, quipped Beecham, was the only place where British composers could expect to hear their works twice.
For years the NSO has been presenting subscription series that have effectively ignored Irish music unless it’s new. So it makes sense to celebrate the last century of Irish composition – just as it makes no sense to have neglected it for so long.
What started me thinking about the 1916 celebrations had nothing to do with RTÉ. It was an event at the other end of the scale from a symphony concert: the last of the Santa Rita Concerts that production company Ergodos has run at the Little Museum of Dublin on St Stephen’s Green.
Singer Michelle O'Rourke commissioned the composer Simon O'Connor, who is also the museum's curator. The resulting work, Left Behind, is a set of songs marking the centenary of the Rising through poems, by O'Connor himself, that imagine 1916 and its fallout through the experiences of the wives of the rebel leaders.
The scoring – O’Connor on piano and guitar, Dara Higgins on bass guitar, and John Dermody on percussion, backing O’Rourke’s amplified vocals – tells you a lot about the style of the music.
O'Connor credits his pared-back style to his studies with Kevin Volans. But the moody, slender, ethereal settings of Left Behind have as much to do with the time he spent in bands such as The Jimmy Cake. The whole was held together by O'Rourke and the extraordinary beauty of her voice.
Vocal beauty is not the key to what makes French soprano Natalie Dessay so special. Her voice is certainly alluring, but the key to her art is her command of fluctuating moods and her skill in spinning a seamless vocal line.
At the NCH on Thursday, there was a certain price to be paid in the loss of verbal clarity. But there was magic in the phrasing and in endlessly inventive shape-changing on the most minute of scales. In songs by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Duparc, Poulenc, Fauré and Debussy, Dessay was simply riveting. And her pianist, Philippe Cassard, was at the top of his game as well.
Dessay’s voice does not sound large by nature, although she can swell it to impressive effect. And her skill in doing all she did while singing not at all loudly was like a masterclass in itself.
There was singing of an entirely different kind on Friday, when the RTÉ NSO under Alan Buribayev offered a programme of Brahms (the Fourth Symphony), Mozart (the motet Exsultate, jubilate with soprano Ailish Tynan) and Strauss (the finale of Der Rosenkavalier, with Celine Byrne as the Marschallin, Tara Erraught as Octavian, and Tynan as Sophie).
Buribayev was not on the best of form, although the Brahms symphony seemed to improve from movement to movement. And his handling of the Mozart and Strauss was what you might call indiscreet, not so much in volume but in the way he didn’t always allow the musical focus to be on the voices.
Tynan approached the exuberance of the youthful Mozart (he was 16 when he wrote the motet) with a degree of self-conscious sophistication, which made for a richly artful experience. And the three voices contrasted nicely in the sheer vocal indulgence of Strauss, with Byrne like a force of nature, Erraught firm and full of craft, and Tynan free in flight.
All in all, three nights of remarkable singing, the highly contrasted likes of which I doubt have ever been heard on any other three nights in Dublin’s musical history.
Chamber music taster
Musical history of another kind was made on Saturday
when west Cork came to Dublin in the form of a day’s worth of what has been on offer at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival in Bantry every June since 1996.
The National Concert Hall’s chief executive, Simon Taylor, who served on the festival’s board, brought the flavour of the festival to Dublin for its 20th birthday.
You could call the venture a taster or a teaser, or a marketing ploy that had the bonus of giving over a full day of high-quality chamber music to the capital.
Bantry has always been a supporter of young musicians, and one of Saturday's highlights was the afternoon violin and piano recital by Mairéad Hickey and Gary Beecher. Hickey's delivery turned convention on its head. She played sonatas by Corelli (Op 5 No 1), Prokofiev (his dark Op 80) and Saint-Saëns (his foot-tapping, showy Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso).
It was in the Corelli that Hickey made the biggest impression, approaching the work from a period-instruments perspective, and handling the florid decorations with real style.
Also memorable were the sometimes almost whispered 11am performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations for string trio (Henning Kraggerud, Krzysztof Chorzelski, Natalie Clein), and the Artis Quartet's grippingly lucid account of Zemlinsky's Fourth String Quartet.
Looking forward, and given that Arnold Bax wrote a sextet in memory of Padraig Pearse in 1916, the festival has an easy start for any commemoration of the Rising it might choose to offer.