A selection of recent arts events reviewed by Irish Timeswriters

McHale, Whelan, Belfast Philharmonic Choir, UO

Ulster Hall, Belfast

Beethoven – Consecration of the House Overture. Rachmaninov – Paganini Rhapsody. Brian Irvine – Big Daddy Motörhead (and Professor Crocker’s horse). Stanford – Songs of the Fleet. Stravinsky – Firebird Suite.

There were still some signs of dust around at the re-opening of the refurbished Ulster Hall this weekend. And the backstage area still needs at least its final lick of paint. But the areas the public sees have been thoroughly transformed in the £8.5 million (€9.5 million) makeover.

The windows in the side walls have been revealed, and the Ulster Orchestra will later this month offer lunchtime concerts to take benefit of the extra light. Panels on the end walls have been filled with classical, pastoral scenes. New seating, not of the best, but a lot more comfortable than what it replaced, is a feature upstairs and down. The colour scheme is quiet and mostly light, save for the Mulholland organ, which is now cased in dark brown, with golden pipes and burgundy decorations.

The new seating will surely have an effect on the acoustic, as will the new balustrade around the balcony. The solid surfaces of the old have been replaced by open metalwork on the new. It wasn’t really possible for me to gauge how the sound may have changed on the basis of Friday’s concert. I was seated so far forward downstairs that those sections of the orchestra that were nearest often sounded the loudest (even when they couldn’t have been) and others sounded much further away than they actually were. Never mind. It was an aptly celebratory occasion, opening with a brightly classical account of Beethoven’s Consecration of the HouseOverture, and following up with fluent fingerwork from pianist Michael McHale in a performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini in which the young soloist never confused tenderness and sentimentality.

Brian Irvine’s specially commissioned Big Daddy Motörhead (and Professor Crocker’s horse)celebrated the myriad of talents that have graced the hall’s stage over the years (it opened as long ago as 1862) through a haunted, premonitory opening and a twitchily zany free-for-all.

The Ulster Orchestra has long been Ireland’s staunchest promoter of the orchestral music of Dubliner Charles Villiers Stanford. In the 1910 Songs of the Fleet, settings of poems by Henry Newbolt, the orchestra was joined by the fresh-sounding voices of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir and the New Zealand bass baritone Paul Whelan. The songs may be fustian, but Whelan’s delivery – the voice startlingly full, the tone exceptionally even, the beauty of sound apparently effortless – had one hanging on every note. And Stravinsky’s kaleidoscopically coloured FirebirdSuite brought all its usual exotic delights. Kenneth Montgomery and his players seemed to have spent the evening making sure everything sounded as distinctive as possible. A good time was had by all. - MICHAEL DERVAN


Civic Theatre, Tallaght

We’ll all end up in a box, eventually, but choreographer David Bolger, artistic director of CoisCéim, is definitely going to have some fun before he goes. This piece, resurrected from 2000, is an early work of his but has been revamped to include some new choreography as well as video animation by Jym Daly of Fidget Feet.

The animation was clever – Stick Man from a health and safety warning sign escapes his triangular confines – but sometimes felt grafted on to a piece that was very much about male working-class physicality, not digital pyrotechnics. The few voice-overs of speeches by Obama and others about the economic crisis also felt a bit out of place, but for labourers, having any kind of job, even one shifting boxes, is a piece of good fortune we need to acknowledge (we might all end up stacking cartons soon).

The piece could have been the result of a summer job in a storeroom, and is a witty and sexy interpretation of that back-breaking labour. Dancer Lee Clayden’s sweat-glazed face dripped like a dockworker’s as he and fellow performer Jason E Bernard interacted with smooth body mechanics during their construction and deconstruction of box walls and towers on stage. Repetitive arm sweeps and thrusts, torsos pumping, indicated the tedium of manual labour. At one point, to a Latin beat, they slapped lazily, clumsily against the stage as men who, exhausted after a hard day’s work, release tension and relax.

Bernard and Clayden also dance in synchronisation with Stick Man, who loses his head but not his cool. For all the often arresting animation, the piece worked best when the performers danced in and around, on and through the dozens of packing boxes on stage – often blazingly lit in a colourful light design by Eamon Fox. Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty’s sound design suited the humour and sultry sensuality of the piece. If On the Waterfrontwere a stylish dance piece, this is what it would aspire to. Tours nationally till May 2nd - CHRISTINE MADDEN

Moser, RTÉ NSO/ Remmereit

NCH, Dublin

Haydn – Symphony No 103 (Drum Roll). Haydn – Cello Concerto No 1. Schumann – Symphony No 3 (Rhenish).

The early music movement has had a profound effect on music-making in mainstream concert repertoire. I doubt that, 20 years ago, anyone would have directed Haydn’s Symphony No 103 (Drum Roll) as the Norwegian conductor Arild Remmereit did.

Instead of just an opening roll, we got a forceful cadenza for timpani. The evidence supporting this practice is ambiguous, and I suspect it was Harnoncourt’s recording of 1998 that has validated the practice in our own time. That startling introduction, the accented phrasing, and the way in which the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra homed in on the conductor’s sense for the music’s dramatic qualities, made this performance a very modern one, eager to rattle tradition, but with good purpose. It had a sense of contrast, of forward drive and of surprise, that made one understand why Haydn’s London audiences, for which this and so many late symphonies were written, went mad about his dramatic effects.

Schumann’s Symphony No 3 (Rhenish) was not as consistently convincing. In the first two movements especially, textures were not well balanced; and although the way in which the horns and brass were encouraged to go for it had dramatic purpose, it was also a case of overkill. The third, fourth and fifth movements were better, partly because they were more carefully paced; and the celebrated fourth was as impressive as it should be.

The concert’s highlight was a scintillating account of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No 1, in which Johannes Moser’s playing of the solo part epitomised lightly worn virtuosity. He engaged directly with the orchestral players, and this, along with Remmereit’s subtle conducting, helped produce a performance that achieved a remarkable mix of tightness and flexibility, and that made one realise that, for all its familiarity, this music is utterly original. - MARTIN ADAMS

The Good Father

The Mill Theatre, Dundrum

It is easy to overlook the privilege of parenthood. We are conditioned to think of it as the most natural thing in the world. In Christian O’Reilly’s sensitive 2002 play, The Good Father, the psychological effects of male infertility are explored when two unlikely lovers find themselves dealing with an unplanned, impossible pregnancy. Tim and Jane are from two sides of a deeply riven class divide. Thrust together at midnight on New Year’s Eve, a casual encounter underneath the coats in one of the bedrooms brings their futures into coalescence. However, if rich lawyer Jane believes she’s better than gormless painter and decorator Tim, his commitment to honouring the accidental conception of their child reveals his considerable, indeed heroic, charm. Tim becomes Jane’s “knight in a shiny tracksuit”, his effortless ability to “settle for grand” facilitating Jane’s transformation from bitter, selfish, self-loathing snob to soft expectant lover and mother-to-be. For Tim, fatherhood is a “vocation”, “the most sacred thing”, and a dream that a dud testicle has so far denied him. Jane is a lifeline, a miracle; carrying the child he thought he’d never have.

Director Padraic McIntyre’s shoestring production for Livin’ Dred focuses more on plot than tone, and the short snappy scenes seem more like superficial soap-opera sketches than concentrated character studies. Even so, Michael Patric easily wins the audience over with his good intentions and his idealism. Gail Fitzpatrick as Jane has a harder time, and her brittle characterisation remains largely unsympathetic, even when the play takes a tragic turn.

O’Reilly manages to restore a tentative sense of optimism to The Good Fatherin its final scene, and McIntyre cannily plays the moment for ambiguity. However, the audience’s assumptions restore a “rom-com” atmosphere to proceedings with their vocal projections of a happy-ever-after for the couple. And yet the play’s poignant message – that the act of bringing a human being into the world is a privilege not a right – is a sober thought that lingers on. Tours till March 27th to Drogheda; Naas; Mullingar; Monaghan; Carrick-on-Shannon; Castleblaney; Dundalk; Dún Laoghaire; Galway; Carigallen; Portlaoise; and Roscommon. - SARA KEATING

Dublin Bach Singers, OSC/Murphy

St Ann’s Church, Dublin

Bach – Cantatas 51, 98, 139, 163

The Orchestra of St Cecilia finished the annual six-week tranche of its ongoing 10-year survey of Bach’s complete church cantatas. This was the penultimate year which they closed with four cantatas written for various Sundays after Trinity.

There were some unconventional movements in this selection, including a bass aria (“Let my heart be the coinage which I pay to you, my Jesus”) in Cantata No 163, which was accompanied by a duet for two cellos. Bach makes the combination work, of course, as did the two players who brought a bright melodic edge to an otherwise very dark and sombre sonority.

In Cantata No 139, another bass aria (“Misfortune enwraps me on all sides”) featured an unusually high number of tempo changes as “the light of comfort appears”

and a “helping hand” to remove the “hundredweight of chains”.

The shifts of tempo were comfortably navigated by conductor Blanaid Murphy, and bass Nigel Williams gave both these arias and his other solos with his customary vocal immediacy and expressiveness. He was matched, as ever, in these qualities by mezzo Alison Browner who sadly this time had only recitatives (and one duet) and no solo arias.

Soprano Lynda Lee had a more mixed outing. She found a suitably tender demeanour for “Cease your weeping, O eyes!” from Cantata No 98 – featuring an even tenderer solo oboe line from Matthew Manning – but earlier sounded strained in the high register of “Shout with joy to God in all lands” from Cantata No 51. At the same time, she never flinched in the technically vicious passagework in this fast-paced movement, although she was outshone by Colm Byrne sailing through complementary passagework on solo trumpet.

The programme provided little involvement or challenge for the Dublin Bach Singers who sounded fine in three chorales and one straightforward chorus. - MICHAEL DUNGAN