RTÉ NSO/Maloney

 

NCH, Dublin

Kevin O’Connell – Symphony

Kevin O’Connell’s Symphonywas the sole item in the Horizons lunchtime concert last Tuesday. Yet it proved an ample feast; for this 30-minute, four-movement work offers much for the mind as well as for the ear – a flawed distinction, I know.

Several of O’Connell’s works have connotative titles, such as the orchestral piece North(1997-8) and the cantata for orchestra and mezzo-soprano From the Besieged City(1989). However, suggestions of meaning – personal, cultural or whatever – have never obscured the fact that his preoccupations are embedded in historical awareness, and in the challenges such awareness creates for writing music that is truly contemporary. In Symphony, O’Connell tackles head-on the concept of what a symphony can be and, for himself, what it should be. His concentration of thought is in direct line with another work that explored a genre of intimidating heritage, the String Quartet(2000).

Craft is a central concern. But so are the strength and appropriateness of ideas, and how to sustain thought across time. Without those, craft is mere note-spinning, and this work’s rich range of historical referencing mere cleverness. Composers reference for themselves at least as much as for their musical peers; but they must never sound like the object of reference. O’Connell doesn’t, which is entirely consistent with his comment during the illuminating pre-concert interview with Evonne Ferguson that one must learn the masters deeply in order to move away from them.

The open-ended nature of each movement, the vivid range of contrasts, and the sense that every note counted – all these things worked together to create a work that is not only impressive, it is also engaging, thanks partly to the characterful performance by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Gavin Maloney.