'We are like a family.'

Concorde in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery

'We are like a family.'

The contemporary music ensemble Concorde is celebrating its thirty-fifth year in existence. Stephen Graham talks to the ensemble's founding Artistic Director and pianist, Jane O'Leary, about the ways in which life has changed for the group in the last three and a half decades.

Composer Jane O’Leary has lived in Ireland since 1972, after receiving her PhD following study with Milton Babbitt at Princeton University. O’Leary teaches composition at the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, and in 2007 received an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland. 

Concorde, the contemporary music ensemble which O’Leary directs, is celebrating thirty-five years of activity on the Irish new music scene in 2011 and 2012 with their concert series Up Close With Music. Continuing their impressive tradition of commissioning and performing music by a range of contemporary composers, inclusive of at least one new Irish composition per concert, the series has already featured music by Alyson Barber, Massimo Davi and Si-Hyun Yi, and will focus on Raymond Deane on 1 July and David Fennessy on 22 July. 

The next concert is scheduled for 10 March, and puts a spotlight on Elaine Agnew, former RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra Composer in Residence. Agnew’s hhmmmm for solo bass clarinet was written for Concorde clarinettist Paul Roe, and will be premiered at the show. Agnew’s song cycle In the Adriatic, a setting of Chris Agee’s poetry, and the live premiere of Music Box, a 2002 Galway Arts Festival Soundscape commission for clarinet and recorded voices, will also feature.

The three-part concert, featuring performances at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm, additionally includes music by Elliot Carter (whose work appears in each concert of the series), Brian Keegan, Grainne Mulvey, O’Leary herself, and Jacob ter Veldhuis. Full details are here.

Concorde’s most recent CD, Reflections, was released on Navona Records in 2010. The disc contains five commissioned works by Alejandro Castaños, Stephen Gardner, Judith Ring, Si-Hyun Yi and Jane O’Leary.

We spoke to Jane O’Leary ahead of the 10 March concert to discuss thirty-five years of Concorde and the ways in which the Irish musical scene has evolved over that time.

The Up Close With Music series at the Contemporary Music Centre celebrates over thirty-five years of Concorde. Could you pick out some of the major institutional and cultural changes you have detected in the Irish musical scene in that time? 

A couple of huge changes have made life a lot easier! First, the Contemporary Music Centre itself. We now have access to everything we need to know about Irish composers. In the beginning there were only a handful of professional composers — you had to ask them personally for manuscripts. Now, we have hundreds and can search a database to look at their scores. Wonderful…

I think the other major change is in technology. Scores come by email. They are so much easier to read. Composers from all over the world are easily found and contacted in an instant. I didn’t even have a telephone during the early days of Concorde.

Needless to say, as we go further into the twenty-first century, contemporary music is much more part of our cultural scene and it’s good to see so many people writing such interesting music and also performing and presenting it. When we started, I don’t think anyone understood what we were trying to do.

The music, too, is so interesting now; so colourful. It makes some of the older ‘new’ music seem like it’s in ‘black and white’.

What were your initial ambitions in setting up Concorde, and how do those ambitions look from the vantage point of thirty-five years of music making and music commissioning? 

I was shocked by the absence of contemporary music in the musical life of Ireland in 1976. My models and inspiration were the Group for Contemporary Music and the DaCapo Chamber Players, both of which were fairly new but very active in New York at the time. Basically, we wanted to perform new music, to specialise in the performance practice of new music, but most importantly to give regular live performances of new music. At the time, that repertoire was neatly packaged into a festival that happened once every two years. Of course, that was wonderful. But two years was a long time to wait for such performances. We hoped to make new music a regular feature of musical life.

Our mission has not changed; we all enjoy creating something new and bringing it to the public on a regular basis, fostering an environment which encourages curious listeners and nurtures relationships between performers, composers and listeners.  I think new music needs live performance more than ever and that’s where the excitement lies.

Concorde receives funding from the Arts Council. Could you speak a little about how important you feel state funding of this type is to a healthy musical culture?

It’s impossible to develop contemporary music without support from the Arts Council. Because of its developmental nature, it will never be commercially viable. Risks have to be taken. There must be trust in the commitment of the artists and their role in developing an art form. No more than literature, theatre, dance, visual art; music’s contemporary side must always be supported, otherwise we are left with the ‘old masters’ and an un-curious public.

Our own position is precarious at the moment as annual funding ceased three years ago. It’s quite a different way of planning for the future… uncertain, to say the least.

Concorde has commissioned pieces from a wide range of composers over the years. The list reads like a who’s who of Irish composition over the last few decades, taking in Jennifer Walshe, Stephen Gardner, David Fennessy, Deirdre McKay, Ed Bennett, Elaine Agnew, James Wilson, Seoirse Bodley, Raymond Deane, Roger Doyle and many others. Can you talk a little about what sort of choices and considerations go into your selection of commissioned composers? 

Commissioning new work is absolutely essential to our existence. We have commissioned over 100 pieces; we have also given first performances of many ‘non-commissioned’ works. Interestingly, we found that many international composers were happy to be offered a performance and didn’t feel that a ‘commission’ needed to offer anything more than that. 

I think we have learned a lot about commissioning through experience. In recent years, we have much closer contact with the composers throughout the process. It is no longer a question of asking for a piece and being handed a finished score (thankfully!). The best results happen when everybody knows what is possible and works together to achieve that. 

We’re very proud of the fact that we’ve given a start to so many Irish composers. The current series, Up Close with Music, has given us a chance to revive some early commissions (like John Kinsella’s Aberration from 1980), to feature six new commissions, and also (importantly) to showcase new work from a dozen composers who simply wanted to write something for us to celebrate thirty-five years.

One of our most successful recent projects involved the commissioning of five new works for the ensemble together with violist Garth Knox. We worked together for nearly a year, all of us, and we all learned from each other. It was so rewarding. I think that is the ideal way; for performers and composers to work together in creating something which is really personal and expressive.

Besides commissions, Concorde of course performs pre-existing music. Can you discuss some of your favourite pieces of music that Concorde has performed over the years?

Well, the real thrill is always the ‘next’ new piece. But some pieces keep popping up again and again. George Crumb’s Vox Balanae, which we first performed in January 1980, has been one of our favourites for years. You’ll find too that bringing back commissioned work for repeat performances has featured strongly in our programming. We like to see our ‘babies’ having a healthy and long life where possible.

Concorde’s line-up has obviously shifted a little over the years. How have these personnel changes affected the group in terms of performance repertoire, commissions, and so on?

I learned early on that the people you work with are more important than the repertoire. We have built up a terrific group of talented and committed people who think alike and enjoy what we do.  Some of us (well, two to be exact) have been there from the beginning. We’re like a family! The repertoire is mainly chosen to fit the ensemble.

However, one of the most important things we have done over the years is to work with guest performers.  I have to mention in particular the outstanding input of Garth Knox, violist and Harry Sparnaay, bass clarinettist.  We have learned so much from both of those experts, have become close friends, and have enjoyed working together over many years.

Concorde has also engaged in tours over the years across Europe and beyond. Does the ensemble have any plans for future tours?

Touring has been a regular and important part of what we do. One of our very early tours was to the legendary IJsbreker Centre in Amsterdam. Our last concert abroad was in Paris last October — such an enthusiastic response! It’s really important to meet new audiences and to showcase Irish music. We’re open to all invitations! 

Concorde’s partnership with the Hugh Lane Gallery has been very important. How was this relationship established, and how does performing there compare to organising concerts at other Irish venues?

The whole environment of a concert, the relationship between performers and audiences, is so important. We tried lots of venues. The ‘usual’ music venues just didn’t work for us. The Hugh Lane has to be the most wonderful venue for new music; it is visually attractive and inviting, the space is open and intimate, the audience is generally open-minded and curious, and the acoustic is great. It works for new music. We started playing in the Hugh Lane in the spring of 1978 and established our own annual series there well before the current series was put in place. The National Gallery of Ireland has also provided a welcoming and successful space for us. We are currently running a series in smaller venues and a recent concert at the Rubicon Gallery on St Stephen’s Green was very successful.

Finally, can you discuss future plans for the ensemble, particularly in terms of the commissioning or performance of new pieces?

Our current series, Up Close with Music, is half way through a six-concert series. Our next concert takes place on Saturday 10 March at the Contemporary Music Centre with a new work by Elaine Agnew called hhmmmm. The series continues in July at the Gallery of Photography (a first time for us there!) with new work by Raymond Deane and David Fennessy.

The six commissioned works from the series will be presented in concert at the Hugh Lane Gallery in the Autumn of this year and will be given performances by the Palomar Ensemble in Chicago, our partners in a project called ‘Global Connections’.

After that, ‘you never know what’s round the corner’ (to borrow a title from one of Stephen Gardner’s Concorde commissions)!

Published on 5 March 2012

Stephen Graham is a lecturer in music at Goldsmiths, University of London. He blogs at www.robotsdancingalone.wordpress.com.

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