Reviews

A look at what is happening in the world of the arts.

A look at what is happening in the world of the arts.

The Merchant of Venice Old Distillery, Cork

There is no poetry whatsoever in the Corcadorca production of The Merchant of Venice which is presented as a promenade performance through three separate locations in Cork city. It's a case of terse verse; this is Shakespeare dissected, with each acting area composing something of a play within the play. But if there is a sacrifice - and the loss of a few scenes and a few speeches is noticeable - the result is compelling. Given an audience which is clearly expected to know the story, a misty night with closed-off streets and held-up traffic and a clock ticking inexorably beyond midnight, there is yet no reluctance to follow the crowd. It is as if we must be there for what happens, we must be witnesses. For director Pat Kiernan and adaptor Jocelyn Clarke, this is an immense achievement.

It is not just a matter of late-night, torch-lit novelty. There is first a forensic reading of the play, so that a fatherly merchant prince Antonio is clearly a victim; an impulsive young Bassanio both sexy and tender; Portia is, with one exception, the most outspoken and intelligent person in the drama; and then there are the joy-riding "lads" who harry on the action, exploit the opportunities for comedy and make up chorus and crowd. In modern dress this is an imaginative and at all times consistent interpretation which reveals a transformatory employment of place as a kind of architectural commentary on the events (the Franciscan church, for example, becomes almost Byzantine).

While the action begins in a river-side business park (beware the remorseless midges!) a balustraded, velvet-lined Belmont, with its frustrated Portia, is reached through a cavernous hall shimmering as if about to consume Antonio's argosies. For the trial scene, the city courthouse, with its canopied dais, is several streets away and, as the 400-strong audience is ushered briskly along, we turn into something of a mob, out for the excitement of justice.

And here it is delivered. That intelligent exception is Shylock, and in its choice of Polish actor Jerzy Gralek for this role, Corcadorca shows just how far it can spread its casting net when assisted, as in this case, by Cork 2005. To say that this is a monumental performance suggests that Gralek outshines or overshadows everyone else. He does, because he gives the part as it is written, with an intellectual insight as powerful as its emotional logic. He is the moral centre of the play, yet again the impact of this performance is controlled for the sake of the piece as a whole, which survives its physical dislocations through the force and compulsion of this personality. Gralek is also an indication of the Corcadorca production standards, of which Roma Patel's set design is another persuasive demonstration.

From a large and hard-working cast, it is only fair to single out Eileen Walsh's Portia and the Gamelan band led by composer Mel Mercier, whose music is a connective tissue throughout the action. This production is a triumph for Corcadorca and for the co-operative civic administration; it is also a marvellous experience for Cork. Mary Leland

Ulster Orchestra, Christian Gansch Spires Centre, Belfast

Rachmaninov - The Rock. Prokofiev - Piano Concerto No 2. Dvorák - Symphony No 4 in D minor.

It hardly seems like 17 years since we filed into the Presbyterian Church's Assembly Rooms, as they then were, for the first instalment of a Dvorák cycle given by the Ulster Orchestra. This imposing Tudor revival building in Belfast city centre has now been remodelled as the Spires Centre. The ground floor has become a shopping mall, and the three storeys of the assembly space itself, arranged like an Elizabethan theatre in octagonal tiers, have been reduced to two. The hall was clearly not designed for concerts; the audience sits in a semi-circle around the orchestra, and on the ground floor at least, balance seems to be a matter of just where one sits. But refurbishment work on the Ulster Hall meant that an alternative venue had to be found for this BBC Invitation Concert.

Dvorak's Fourth may not reach the heights of his Seventh, also in D minor, but it is a hugely enjoyable piece, and Christian Gansch conducted an excellent performance, clear, rhythmical, and passionate. Both here and in the charming Rachmaninov tone poem the immediacy of the sound and the vividness of the writing offset the dryness of the acoustics. But the venue does no favours for solo pianists. The young Derry-born pianist Cathal Breslin is clearly equal to the demands of Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, but the dead acoustics robbed the piano sound of any lustre, and one could only guess at the nuances that might have been conveyed in a more sympathetic venue. Dermot Gault

Fionnuala Hunt and her Tango Orchestra, Castletown House, Co Kildare

Mozart - Eine Kleine Nachtmusik K525. Haydn - Violin Concerto in C HobVIIa/I. Tangos.

This summer's Music in Great Irish Houses reached a hugely enjoyable ending in a concert that visited two different musical worlds: Mozart and Haydn before the interval, and sultry tangos after it. For a festival with a Latin theme, there could hardly have been a more indulgently fitting finale.

Director-soloist Fionnuala Hunt and her 12-piece string orchestra tackled the classical works in a style redolent of period-instrument playing. With vibrato at a premium, there was the frequent buzz of good intonation, and tone quality ranging from a flutey soft to a gritty loud.

Gestures seemed to come from within the music itself, rather than being merely grafted on; tempos too had a naturalness that came, just perceptibly, from pressing ahead as the music grew louder, and easing off again as it quietened.

While this approach made for an unusually wholesome Eine kleine Nachtmusik, it also brought out a rustic, asymmetrical side to the concerto that a more polished interpretation would have sought to disguise.

Though it consisted of the same players, an entirely different ensemble seemed to be on stage in the second half. In music from another century and another continent, performance techniques were amended accordingly.

With many a perky portamento and guitar-like twang, Hunt's skilful string arrangements captured the music's inherent jazzy spirit, while her own solo playing resembled the keenly-tuned, nasal sound of that tango instrument par excellence, the bandoneon.

Hunt was bitten by the tango bug eight years ago, and she and her orchestra have recently recorded an album of pieces, chiefly by Astor Piazzolla and his associates, from which the evening's programme was selected. Andrew Johnstone

Altan, Vicar St, Dublin

Leopold Bloom's memorable rambles through Dublin were marked in an altogether different way on Thursday night, with a taster of world music that stretched from Argentina to the furthest reaches of Malin Head.

The Improvised Music Company's decision to meld the music of Argentinian guitarist and singer/songwriter Ariel Hernandez and his musical blood brother Dermot Dunne with that of Altan, whose Donegal roots have informed every step they've taken in their 20-year rambles across the globe, was inspired.

Hernandez brings a southern sensibility to his guitar playing, subtly picking through a range of Argentinian (and the odd Venezuelan) folk song, paying tribute to the great tango meister Astor Piazolla en route, and airing some of his own original songs as well. Dermot Dunne's accordion accompaniment was the perfect foil to Hernandez' syncopated rhythms, underscoring here, countering there, with glorious echoes of tuba and clarinet threaded through his fine playing.

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh led her merry men on stage with a flourish, and launched into a rousing set bookended by Bó Mhín na Toitean and Seanamhach Tube Station. Altan's progressively complex orchestrations of traditional tunes have revealed a musically adventurous spirit, ready and willing to sculpt both songs and tunes into everfiner shapes.

The band's identity is inextricably tied up with Ní Mhaonaigh's voice, which thrived on the back of the new blood of Cailín Deas Óg and Adieu My Lovely Nancy, and was further buoyed by a late duet with surprise guest Paul Brady, on a swarthy reading of Daily Growing. Oddly though, her voice occasionally sank beneath the weight of sullen acoustics during the second half of the performance, particularly during her reading of the Scottish ballad, The Wind And Rain.

This is a band who's matured in recent years to a point where Tourish and Ní Mhaonaigh's complementary and strikingly different fiddle styles thrive on the musical banter of The Repeal Of The Union set, Tourish's creative energies channelled through not only fiddle these days, but whistle (tin and low) and an unexpected outing on bouzouki. Ciarán Curran's almost invisible accompaniment of bouzouki and mandolin grows ever more subtle, his penchant for weaving delicious figarios in between fiddle and guitar ensuring that no two readings of a tune are the same.

The repertoire still thrives on the oxygen of the new. Mairéad's father, fiddler and songwriter Francie Mooney, joined the group for a feisty reading of The High Road To Linton and sean nós dancer Seosamh Ó Neachtain threw a rake of double-jointed shapes momentarily before disappearing off stage as quickly as he had appeared.

Late night solos from each of the band were a mere distraction from the soaring personality of their ensemble playing. The band's energy was occasionally diluted by the dullness of the sound in the second half, but this left little mark on a roomful of punters who merrily rose from their seats for the final encore. Traditional or world music? This was music for folk, first and last. Nothing more, nothing less. Siobhán Long

NCC/Antunes National Gallery, Dublin

Rossini - Petite messe solennelle.

"Is it sacred music - or just the opposite?" asks the 71-year-old Rossini in the famous letter to God with which he prefaced his Petite messe solennelle. "My real talent, as You well know, was for opera buffa. A little skill, a little heart is all I have to offer. Be merciful, then, and let me into Paradise."

Indeed, the tension between sacred and operatic in this sometimes bizarre but deeply, often winsomely heart-felt music was rarely far from the surface in Thursday evening's performance, the opening concert of the 12th Pipeworks Festival (formerly the Dublin International Organ and Choral Festival).

The opening Kyrie is a case in point. Oom-cha-cha-cha go the two pianos, in what could so easily be the lead-in to a tenor's heroic aria. But heroism dissolves with the entry of the choir who reveal instead the spiritual orientation of the music.

To reaffirm this orientation, pianists David Adams and Michael Finlay took the bite out of the rhythm and so camouflaged the operatic associations of the accompaniment. The choir - under artistic director Celso Antunes - produced an ecclesiastical warmth very different from the fervour needed in opera.

The choir also moved easily between various styles: a serene Palestina style in the unaccompanied Christe, strong and self- assured in the mighty fugues that end both the Gloria and Credo, harmonically true amidst the most romantic, 19th century chromaticism.

The work's most unabashedly operatic moments were the solos for soprano Sylvia O'Brien, mezzo-soprano Victoria Massey, tenor Rodrigo Orrego and bass Philip O'Reilly.

Although as a quartet they were not homogeneous as regards style and the sacred/operatic divide, individually each delivered. Massey ensured that the closing Agnus Dei was the emotional high-point of the performance. Michael Dungan