Irish Timeswriters review a selection of recent events

Black Milk

Brian Friel Theatre

Belfast Festival

Black Milkhas been on Prime Cut’s radar for more than four years. It fits neatly into the company’s long-established and successful policy of bringing to Ireland high quality international work, never before produced here.

Prime Cut’s sights have been fixed in recent years on Eastern Europe and Russia, and the belief that the notion of “elsewhere” can teach our society much about itself. Vassily Sigarev’s aggressive so-called comedy focuses on the struggle for the “new Russia”, a vast country emerging from momentous political change and fraught with opposing interests and ideologies.

Poppet and Lyovchik are two opportunistic, self-styled young entrepreneurs from the underbelly of Moscow, who find themselves stranded for hours in a desolate railway station in the frozen wastes of Siberia, where they have been flogging toasters to exploitable, poverty-stricken peasants. They pass the time by loudly trading expletive-ridden insults, fighting like cats, belittling the locals and sucking lollipops. But when Poppet goes into labour and they are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, she begins to see that this apparently godfor- saken hole offers possibilities far removed from the corrupt, mater- ialistic obsessions of city life.

Thematically, the play would appear to have much to offer but Matthew Torney’s uneven production, which uses Northern voices to strong effect, falters in coming to terms with a clunky, repetitive script, which lacks joined-up thinking and dramatic cohesion. Some performances do rise above it, however. Packy Lee and Amy Molloy are genuinely credible and sparky as the young couple, whose abusive relationship is clearly built on shakily unpalatable foundations. Frankie McCafferty makes a fine, but brief, appearance, first as a narrator, then as an elderly alcoholic, while Helena Bereen brings a sense of genuine poignancy to her sweet relationship with Poppet, who, after the birth of her daughter, is transformed, albeit fleetingly, in mind and spirit. Until Saturday JANE COYLE

Fleetwood Mac

02 Dublin

Fleetwood Mac are back on the road, 32 years after the generation-defining Rumoursalbum. This time around, there is no new album to plug and no new songs to roll out. Yesterday’s gone, but those golden sun-drenched songs roll on forever.

Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, whose combustible relationship sparked Rumours, emerge hand-in-hand and in warm spirits. Heathcliff and Cathy are chilling out.

Wrapped in her familiar shawls, Nicks is still playing the beguiling gypsy queen. Now 61, she meanders across the stage in long, flowing, chiffon dresses. For those of a certain vintage, it’s as if that fabled footage of Nicks belting out Rhiannonin 1976 has come to life.

Buckingham, with that familiar icy stare, is her counterpoint, all darkness and danger.

The set opens with Monday Morning, from the band’s eponymous second (white) album. The second song, The Chain, is the first of seven from Rumours. What is striking is how time and familiarity have not aged the power and beauty of these songs.

A blistering performance of Go Your Own Wayis a real highlight. The song is Buckingham’s finest hour; his defiant guitar driving it forward with relish. Buckingham is very much the first among equals, dominating the stage with two underrated songs, Big Loveand Tusk, commanding a standing ovation on each occasion.

Nicks is strongest on Dreamsand Sara, two soft rock classics. Stand Back, one of her solo hits, has aged much less well.

There is an extraordinary synergy between the band and the middle-aged audience when Nicks sings that poignant, familiar line from Landslide– “And I’m getting older too”. It’s a terrific performance of a great song.

The concert did not work on all levels. Fleetwood Mac has always been a tapestry of different colours, so the absence of Christine McVie, who has retired from public performance, was keenly felt. Buckingham and Nicks dominated the vocal duties but McVie’s unplayed piano and echoey vocal style were conspicuous by their absence. McVie’s best songs – Songbirdand You Make Loving Fun– are part of the Fleetwood Mac canon. The band did pay tribute to one former troubled member when Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood rolled out Peter Green’s Oh Well. It was good to see his contribution acknowledged.

The gig was also a reminder that Fleetwood – the mainstay of the band since the Peter Green era, is one of rock’s finest drummers – even if the solo on World Turningveered close to Spinal Tap country.

Fleetwood Mac also encored with the old foot-stomping Bill Clinton favourite, Don’t Stop. The final song was Nicks’s glorious Silver Springs, tossed away as a B-side back in the day, but given its due recognition here.

At the end, the band lingered on stage, revelling in the warm embrace of the crowd long after the music had stopped. SEÁN FLYNN

Crash Ensemble

Smock Alley, Dublin

Steve Reich – Pendulum Music; Cello Counterpoint; Four Organs. Philip Glass – Koyaanisqatsi

This was a tale of two minimalists, both American, both born in the mid-1930s, both still writing.

From Steve Reich there were two early pieces and something more recent. This latter was Cello Counterpointfrom 2003 for eight cellos, on this occasion featuring seven pre-recorded parts and the Crash Ensemble’s Kate Ellis as live soloist. By its nature the piece is texturally rather thick, mostly masking subtle changes within its static harmonies. But above these Ellis gracefully spun out the work’s lyrical content and shifting moods.

In 1968’s Pendulum Music, four suspended microphones swinging freely by their cables over four speakers produce an un-coordinated variety of phasing feedback tones like whoops and screeches. “It’s the ultimate process piece,” says Reich, “that runs on its own once you set it up and you can walk away.” As the mics slow to a standstill, there is indeed a mesmeric effect, not unlike the plastic bag billowing in the wind in the 1999 Sam Mendes film American Beauty.

The same concept of process is at work in Four Organs, from 1970, only here the musical effects are controlled by the composer rather than chance. The slow separation of a single chord’s constituents means the tedium of repetition eventually morphs quite magically into something like a short musical figure.

The second half featured a screening of the 1982 Godfrey Reggio film Koyaanisqatsi– crammed with unforgettable images contrasting the works of nature with those of humanity. Where so much of Philip Glass’s music leaves me cold, here his accompanying soundtrack was a compelling partner. MICHAEL DUNGAN

Ronald Brautigam & Friends

Belfast Festival at Queen’s

Orchestras, string quartets, pianists, choirs and festivals have all done their bit to bring quantity and variety to Ireland’s bicentenary celebration of the work of Haydn. We’ve heard more symphonies than usual, a greater range of string quartets, and a wider choice of approaches to the composer’s piano music.

But the celebration that stands out is the one organised by BBC Radio 3 and the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s last weekend.

The Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam performs on both modern instruments and early keyboards, and in Belfast he was heard in four separate all-Haydn programmes: one of solo works, one of piano trios, one of concertos (with one-to-a-part accompaniments from a string quartet), and in an accompanying role in a song recital.

The series was unusual in an Irish context in that it provided a rare opportunity to hear Haydn played by a leading interpreter on a period instrument. Brautigam played a copy of a Viennese fortepiano. His instrument was made in Amsterdam in 1992 by Paul McNulty, and modelled on one Anton Walter (a favourite maker of Mozart’s) made in the mid-1790s.

The instrument looks strange to modern eyes because it has no pedals. But there are levers operated by the knees, which provide the same functions as the modern pedals.

The sound is lighter and more delicate than a modern piano, and the wooden-framed instrument is a mere pygmy beside the shiny black monster of a 21st-century concert grand, and it weighs about a sixth as much.

The lightness of tone is only part of the story. The sound does not sustain as well as a modern piano, and sharp accentuation is quite different in character, allowing for darting peaks in phrasing that, on a modern piano, would linger in the air and cloud what follows. The fortepiano allows players to create the effect of extremes without pulling early classical music out of shape in ways that are common on modern instruments.

I wasn’t able to attend the solo recital, and caught up with the venture – presented in the Banqueting Hall of the recently refurbished City Hall – at the programme of piano trios.

Haydn’s piano trios are not modern piano trios in which the three instruments – keyboard, violin and cello – all play an equal role. The piano is dominant, with the others often doubling lines from the piano part.

But those piano parts can be extraordinarily inventive, and the blending of sonorities, especially the combination of cello and keyboard, is distinctive and attractive.

The best of Haydn’s piano trios are up there with the best of Haydn, period. The three (Nos 27-29) offered by Brautigam and his partners (violinist Johannes Leertouwer and cellist Viola de Hoog, both members of the Narratio Quartet) were written in the 1790s and dedicated to a Mrs Bartolozzi, a star pupil of Muzio Clementi, and no mean pianist, as the technical demands of the trios make clear.

The writing of piano trios for a favourite player inspired Haydn to heights of invention that mostly eluded him when he faced the challenge of writing a concerto. Brautigam and the members of the Narratio Quartet offered three concertante pieces, scaling up from a concertino with two violins and cello, to two concertos using the full quartet.

Even with their virtuosity, brilliant writing in the fast movements of the two concertos, and elaborate right-hand filigree in the slow movements, there’s something missing in these pieces. It’s as if Haydn’s autopilot wrested control of the exercise. Unlike Vivaldi, who seems fully engaged in dreaming up new difficulties, Haydn was more likely to be spurred on by other kinds of challenges.

Scottish soprano Mhairi Lawson joined Brautigam for the final programme, 55 minutes of Haydn songs. The quaint charm here is good tunes, often with beautifully constructed piano parts, and sometimes with appropriate mood-painting, too.

But the music never gets under the skin, even when sung with Lawson’s warm vibrancy, and accompanied with the sensitivity and brio that Brautigam commands. In effect these are songs best heard as contrasting inserts in larger programmes. MICHAEL DERVAN

Cleary, Rudenko

National Concert Hall, Dublin

Webern– Three Short Pieces Op 11. Liszt– Sonata in B minor.

Shostakovich– Cello Sonata.

Irish cellist Annette Cleary and Ukraine-born pianist Svetlana Rudenko opened their concert with a serving of Webern at his most condensed. The three miniatures all offered fleeting tastes of pristine tuning, intelligent interpretation and taut dialogue.

Svetlana Rudenko followed with a power-packed account of Liszt’s supreme Sonata in B minorthat revealed no inhibiting concerns for the practicable or even the physically possible.

The more ferocious passages often reached, and sometimes seemed to exceed, the maximum feasible velocity of either pianistic execution or auditory assimilation.

Inevitably, there were fluffs; intentionally perhaps, sentiment was strictly curtailed in the calmer sections. Yet the perilous, unconditional virtuosity that took the place of clarity and mellowness was a quite remarkable achievement of sheer verve.

Rudenko’s forcible musicality was an easy match for the at-times formidable piano part of the Sonata in D minorby Shostakovich. Here, though, nothing was going to upstage the wisdom and skill of the cello playing.

Leaping over every technical hurdle with easy agility, and turning every phrase with persuasive emotional precision, Annette Cleary fully brought out the finest and most philosophical qualities in both her instrument and the music. ANDREW JOHNSTONE

Lyric Suite and Cinderella

NCH, Dublin

It’s not always happy ever after. In Ballet Ireland’s version of Cinderella, choreographer Morgann Runacre-Temple goes beyond the popular fairy-story’s last page into other, more realistic chapters.

Returning from her honeymoon, Cinderella discovers that the Prince is asset-rich but cash-poor, and while his loyal staff keeps the bill collectors at bay, he sinks into drunken oblivion. The only solution is to sell off Cinderella’s wardrobe, including the much sought-after glass slippers.

Along with librettist Stuart Price, Runacre-Temple has constructed a clever and witty sequel that is full of snappy set-pieces, such as the frenetic auction scene where the Fairy Godmother saves the day by buying the glass slippers. In fact, there’s plenty of fizzle throughout, and Runacre-Temple favours relentless action until the final pas de deux.

Here, Cinderella and the Prince gather their material possessions in one pile and slowly dance on the bare stage, true love winning out. Amy Drew, a company regular, shows just the right blend of exacerbation, regret and optimism as her dreams shatter and reform in the role of Cinderella, while Laurie McSherry-Gray, as the Prince, shows what happens when good royal breeding goes bad.

The funniest moves are saved for Kieran Stoneley and Richard Bermange playing the Ugly Sisters en travesti. Constantly bitchy to Cinderella and still on the prowl for men, they do all they can to get their hands on the glass slippers by fair means or foul.

Ballet Ireland’s new policy of commissioning major works from other choreographers is well-rewarded in Cinderella, which, although new, will still appeal to audiences used to the classics. Michael Corder’s Lyric Suiteis less familiar ground for both the company and its audiences.

A non-narrative celebration of pure dancing, it is seductive in the simplicity of its neo-classical forms, although it received a somewhat tentative performance on opening night.

Together with Cinderella, it is Ballet Ireland’s strongest production to date. MICHAEL SEAVER

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