Young musicians make many new friends at NCH

Friends Gala Concert with Camerata Ireland; Anja Bihlmaier; Irish Baroque Orchestra

Barry Douglas’s Camerata Ireland gave the first concert of their 2019-20 residency at the National Concert Hall on Thursday. The occasion was also the NCH Annual Friends Gala Concert. The evening presented five young musicians in four concertos to a house whose responses – and in particular their ticket-buying inclinations – will have a not-inconsiderable impact on the performers’ future domestic careers.

The five musicians played just four concertos between then. Cellist Killian White and clarinettist Tom Myles got a concerto each: Haydn's Cello Concerto in C and Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Mairéad Hickey and Ed Creedon were the violin and viola soloists in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat, K364, and Kevin Jansson paired up with Barry Douglas in Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos.

The star of the evening was undoubtedly Jansson, who stylishly more than held his own with Douglas, in a performance where his airy clarity contrasted with the greater sense of bustle that Douglas delivered.

In the event, Doyle's attempt to use folksong arrangements to weave contrast through the Brahms didn't come off

Hickey and Creedon also made for a contrasted pairing, with the violin the more easy-going of the two, and the viola the more assertive. White and Myles gave able accounts of their chosen concertos but didn’t manage quite the sense of character achieved in the other works.


Urgent and powerful

The weekend's concerts included the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra debut of German conductor Anja Bihlmaier. Bihlmaier's musical approach was upfront, and her delivery of Brahms's First Symphony was urgent and powerful. She was happy to pile on the layers of musical reference in Swedish composer Anders Hillborg's Exquisite Corpse. And her forthrightness in Strauss's Vier letzte Lieder was unbuttoned enough to challenge the often beautiful shaping of soprano Ailish Tynan in the singer's lower register.

Saturday brought a first Dublin appearance by Berlin's RIAS Kammerchor under its English chief conductor Justin Doyle. The programme was built around Brahms's two sets of Liebeslieder Waltzes, 33 short numbers for voices and piano duet (the Turkish duo of Bahar and Ufuk Dördüncü).

In the event, Doyle’s attempt to use folksong arrangements to weave contrast through the Brahms didn’t come off. The choral singing was not only gorgeous but also unfailingly musicianly, and the piano accompaniments were also finely judged – though accompaniment is exactly what they sounded to be. Yet by the interval the sense of samey-ness was so strong that I didn’t stay for the second half.

The Irish Baroque Orchestra’s Sunday afternoon programme, built around chamber concertos by Vivaldi at the NCH Kevin Barry Recital Room, had everything in the way of surprises and contrast that the choral concert had lacked.

Peter Whelan’s rocketing bassoon playing in the Sonata sopra La Monica by Böddecker was the kind of thing once heard, never forgotten. And he proved an equally agile partner to the recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus in Vivaldi’s Sonata in A minor for recorder and bassoon, RV86.

The other players onstage were violinist James Toll, cellist Jonathan Byers and keyboard player David Gerrard. And, for sheer sparkle and vivacity, nothing else over the weekend came close to the 90 minutes of this group’s lively offerings.

Women composers written out of the headlines again

It’s very difficult in journalism to get every time and date right. And proclamations about firsts are an area that can be pretty perilous. But it’s unusual to be wrong by a matter of centuries. Yet in Monday’s edition of the Guardian you’ll find a two-part headline which manages exactly that. It proclaims “Vienna’s female overture” and then adds “First opera written by a woman is based on Woolf’s trans novel”.

The story is about Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth’s new opera, Orlando, with a libretto by Neuwirth and Catherine Filloux based on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. The opening night, Sunday, December 8th, will become the first time in the history of the Vienna State Opera that the company has presented a work by a woman.

The festival did host a production of Marian Ingoldsby's Hot Food with Strangers in the Talbot Hotel

It may be a first for the Vienna State Opera, but women have been writing operas for centuries. Earlier this year students from the Royal Irish Academy of Music presented Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina of 1625, the first opera composed by a woman. And, to be fair, it’s only the Guardian headline which is out of line. The article itself discusses the difficulties of getting operas by women onto major opera stages around the world.

Festival production

It’s a matter of note that this year’s Wexford Festival included for the first time a festival production of an opera by a woman, a piano-accompanied ShortWorks production of Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon. The festival did host a production of Marian Ingoldsby’s Hot Food with Strangers in the Talbot Hotel as part of an Opera Theatre Company tour of Four Dublin Operas in 1991.

Irish National Opera presented two performances of Evangelia Rigaki’s This Hostel Life in the crypt of Christ Church Cathedral in September, and is involved with Music for Galway and Galway 2020 in next June’s production of Elaine Agnew’s new community opera, Paper Boat.

In terms of equality, of course, this all looks rather like window-dressing. The question is when either of the country’s core Arts Council-funded opera companies will bring an opera by a woman to the venues – the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre and Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, and the National Opera House in Wexford – where they present their major, large-scale work.

To be honest, I’m not holding my breath.