Horizons – featuring the music of John Buckley, Henri Dutilleux and György Ligeti
National Concert Hall, Dublin, 29 January 2002, with the National Symphony Orcestra (Conductor: Colman Pearce) and soloist Peter Sweeney (organ)
A new series of the National Symphony Orchestra’s Horizons contemporary music concerts began on 29 January. Each of the four concerts is organised with an Irish composer and the idea is to give audiences a chance to hear performances of their music alongside that of recent international works. This alone would make the Horizons series a very valuable initiative. But the series is all the more impressive in that the concerts are free and that each composer gives a talk before the concert – the point being to encourage the development of an audience for contemporary works.
The four concerts focus on the work of John Buckley, Ian Wilson (12 March), Gerald Barry (14 May) and Donnacha Dennehy (21 May). John Buckley is one of the composer members of Aosdána and he is probably best known through his courses, particularly that of music appreciation which has earned great praise from its participants. His pre-concert talk in the John Field Room of the National Concert Hall was packed, as was the concert hall for the performance. He gave a structural analysis of the music to be played and his genuine enthusiasm for it generated a real feeling of anticipation amongst the audience.
The program consisted of his own Into the Light, Henri Dutilleux’s Timbres, Espace, Mouvement, Ligeti’s Lontano and Buckley’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra. The short piece, Into the Light, was originally a companion piece to a work by Ian Wilson, but it stands perfectly well on its own. The piece moves from an opening section that is vigorous into a central part that was lyrical and involving to a concluding section as energetic as the start.
Before going to the concert I knew nothing of the work of Henri Dutilleux, and one of the features of the whole Horizons series is that it gives Irish composers an opportunity to champion the work of their international colleagues and put it before Irish audiences. As John Buckley explained in the pre-concert talk, Timbres, Espace, Mouvement bears a relationship to Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Henri Dutilleux stated that he had kept the painting in mind as a ‘backdrop’ to the piece. The parallel between music and painting is interesting and you can understand how the composer is trying to generate creativity from it when he wrote that the ‘intense pulsation that gives life to this picture, the sense of space that dominates it, the palpitation of the subject matter, and above all, the effect of almost cosmic whirling from it, could have their equivalents on a musical level.’ The music strives to match this ambition with an unusual orchestra – no violins or violas are present – which emphasises contrasts between sounds from the extremes of the register. The overall result was a fascinating motion from intense to more spatial effects. However unlike the almost sensual immediacy of a painting, listening to Timbres, Espace, Mouvement was a relatively detached experience.
The next piece was Ligeti’s Lontano. This is quite possibly the greatest composition ever (to put my cards on the table). I could not believe that at last I had an opportunity to hear it live, and not only that but the performance was free! During the pre-concert talk by John Buckley he played a long excerpt from the music and immediately I was plunged into its alien world of distant sound and irresistible swell. Lontano is powerful because it is full of contractions, infinitely quiet tones from instruments flow together until you suddenly realise an irresistibly violent flood is upon you and you are totally unprepared for it. Three times the music breathes its cycles.
To achieve the effect desired by the composer great precision is called for. The score is filled with detailed instructions, which no doubt can seem bizarre and irrelevant to an individual performer. But they have to be judged from the overall impact of the piece. Somewhere along the line from score to our ears, there was a breakdown in the composers intention, arising either from the orchestra’s unfamiliarity with this kind of piece, the conductor’s interpretation or lack of rehearsal time. Perhaps it was that my expectations were so high, that the anticlimax was marked.
It is a brave person who programmes a work of their own directly after that of Lontano, but John Buckley’s own Concerto for Organ and Orchestra was in very marked contrast to Ligeti’s piece. The organ is an amazingly powerful instrument and it takes the full orchestra to have a dialogue with it. The concerto was hugely rhythmic with a staccato playing of the organ producing a kind of double-barrelled impact, the termination of the notes having almost as percussive an effect as their initiation. The organ was used to its full, grand, effect in this work bringing the concert to a very successful conclusion.
Published on 1 March 2002
Conor Kostick is a writer and journalist. He is the author of Revolution in Ireland (1996) and, with Lorcan Collins, The Easter Rising (2000).