The Irish Canon: mad ambition, madder promotional strategy

The stated aim of a new concert series is to create a new canon of Irish works and make them repertoire standards. Good luck with that

It has to be a world-record attempt. I'm talking about a new series of concerts, The Irish Canon, promoted by the Association of Irish Composers.

The record would relate to holding a function to launch the series more than a month late, after three of the 10 concerts have actually taken place. The association also got the co-operation of the Contemporary Music Centre in this tardy endeavour, and the centre has so fully entered into the spirit of the thing that none of the five concerts announced for next year yet feature in the events calendar section of its website,

The Association of Irish Composers could also be seeking a record for the chutzpah of its stated aim, “to create a new canon of Irish works, by ensuring multiple performances of music by Irish composers, and taking the first steps towards making them repertoire standards”.

This is a high bar, and not one that anyone in the musical world can claim to be able to deliver. Even the likes of Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh don't assume that repeat performances are going to turn the songs of their successful acts into "repertoire standards".


The record attempt I have in mind is along different lines entirely. The composers’ organisation has produced a double-sided A4 flyer for the new series. It has the names of the performers for each of the 10 concerts printed twice, once with photos, and again with a list of venues, times and dates. In the 250 or so words on the flyer you won’t be able to find the name of a single composer whose work will be performed, let alone the name of any of the works that have been deemed ready for canonisation. If you have come across a concert series crazier in its ambition than this, or madder in its promotional strategy, let me know.

The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating, and there was a dismally small turnout for soprano Michelle O'Rourke's Irish Canon recital at the National Concert Hall's Kevin Barry Room on Tuesday, quite a contrast to the Ergodos Musicians programme she took part in at the Unitarian Church on St Stephen's Green the previous Saturday.

The Ergodos programme was devoted to a selection of song arrangements for a line-up of voice, saxophone, cello and guitar, stretched-out, laid-back arrangements that just didn’t work for me.

O’Rourke has cultivated a kind of plaintive, back-to-nature vocal loveliness, which is at the opposite end of the scale to the norms of the highly trained voices to be found in song recitals and on the opera stage. It’s mesmerising in small doses, but less impressive over longer spans, because too much of what’s obviously different ends up sounding the same.

In Tuesday's programme, the works that made the strongest impression were Judith Ring's Mouthpiece and Linda Buckley's Q, both for voice and electronics. Mouthpiece was a focused exercise, the live voice presented against a tapestry of often extraordinary effects recorded by mezzo soprano Natasha Lohan. Q was a polystylistic journey with the kitchen sink thrown in. Among the evening's three world premieres, it was Andrew Hamilton's playful O'Rourke that made a mark.

Blown out of the canon
The issue of a canon is a very real one for Irish composers. It's at its most problematic when it comes to orchestral music, primarily because there are so few opportunities here for orchestral performances.

Ask yourself a few questions. Which works from the 1950s to the 1990s have the people who plan programmes for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, RTÉ Concert Orchestra and the Irish Chamber Orchestra deemed to be worth hearing again? What policies are in place to ensure that the best new works of more recent years will be heard again? And what role has a major institution such as the National Concert Hall played in the development and nurturing of an Irish canon in the 32 years of its existence?

The answers to those questions are: none (with one possible exception), none, and none. And, yes, I am aware of the honourable role of the CDs that appear on the RTÉ Lyric FM label, and those that appeared on Marco Polo in the last century.

But those recordings serve to set the problem in even greater relief by presenting the idea that we’re dealing with repertoire that is worth issuing on CD but not actually worth a concert performance. No disrespect to the CDs, but there’s something seriously skewed here.

Take just one example. Seán Ó Riada's best work, Hercules Dux Ferrariae, has been issued on an RTÉ Lyric FM CD in a 2011 recording by the RTÉ NSO under Robert Houlihan, but, unless I'm mistaken, it hasn't been programmed in an RTÉ concert for more than 25 years. Even the preparation and issuing of the CD didn't prompt a live performance.

At the moment, the evidence is that, in the minds of the NSO's programmers, the Irish orchestral canon is restricted to just one composer, Shaun Davey, whose work never appears in the regular season, but in separate, one-man concerts. Go figure.

Opera Theatre Company rises
Opera Theatre Company, which has been through a difficult few years, was involved in a good news story last week. It will engage in a production of Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in partnership with Rough Magic theatre company, which has received a €230,000 Sky Arts Ignition award for the project. The show will run at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin from June 12th to 22nd next year.

Just a few years ago, Opera Theatre Company faced the prospect of being forcefully merged by the Arts Council into a new national opera company based in Wexford, and it still faced extinction when that project stalled. But a good face was put on the scandalous treatment of opera in Ireland by throwing the company a lifeline, while Opera Ireland was allowed to go under.

Opera Theatre Company didn't receive the full funding it had sought for a 2013 project involving the much-anticipated Irish premiere of Berg's Wozzeck, and although the Wozzeck performances were announced, they were later cancelled.

The company's new team of Rosemary Collier (executive director) and Fergus Sheil (artistic director) arrived in September to steady the ship. January's tour of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore, a co-production with NI Opera, has had to be postponed. And a planned 2014 co- production of Britten's Albert Herring with Mid Wales Opera has been shelved. For Opera Theatre Company, the announcement of the new Mahagonny is a shot in the arm that couldn't have come at a better time.