A Harp at Home

Anne-Marie O’Farrell performing the world premiere of Ryan Molloy’s new concerto for Irish harp, as part of RTÉ Lyric FM’s 20th Birthday Gala concert.

A Harp at Home

RTÉ Lyric FM celebrated its twentieth year with a gala concert on 1 May featuring the premiere of the very first concerto for Irish harp, written by Ryan Molloy. Tim Diovanni reviews.

After an uilleann pipes concerto by Kevin Volans in September and a concertina concerto by Niall Vallely in March, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gavin Maloney, premiered another concerto for an Irish traditional instrument – the Irish harp – on 1 May at the National Concert Hall on the occasion of RTÉ Lyric FM’s 20th birthday. As a high point in the resurgence of the instrument, the concerto, Gealán (Sparkle), by Ryan Molloy, created a palpable sense of excitement in the Irish harp community even before the orchestra and soloist, Anne-Marie O’Farrell, substituting for the dedicatee of the concerto, Máire Ní Chathasaigh, played the first note. 

Molloy, a fiddle-player and pianist as well as a composer from County Tyrone, has had experience writing concertos: his Violin Concerto (2016) is a tour de force that combines such diverse influences as Eastern percussion ensembles, Bartók – especially in the portamenti and melodies – and Irish traditional music. His proclivity for percussive effects shone in the harp concerto as well, which began with clanking bells and ringing chords in the solo part after which O’Farrell – sonorous because of heavy amplification – soared a buoyant melody over swirling strings. Later, an entrancing minimalist dialogue between the harp and vibraphone was followed by a dance tune striated with jagged edges. The Irish harp sounded at home in its new environs. 

An orchestral reconfiguration of a traditional music performance – with a clarinet unravelling a modal air over the strings droning like uilleann pipes – opened the second movement. The harp picked up the clarinet’s tune, reshaping it with heavy throbbing chords. Molloy’s layering of melody over harmonic sostenuto produced a dreamy soundworld. The ensemble segued into the final movement, which featured a dance tune with a swaggering limp and a twirling melody in the harp. Two climaxes, the first a feint, concluded the concerto. The second climax could have perhaps benefitted from a longer preparation; it might have been more effective if the music had maintained the momentum from the previous climax. O’Farrell executed an admirable and sensitive interpretation. 

Molloy understands the potential of traditional and contemporary music. With such insider knowledge, the composer crafted a compelling synthesis of styles such as in the first movement where a traditional sounding dance in the harp arose from a minimalist soundscape. Now with two excellent concertos – this one and the previous one for violin – that develop spaces between traditional and contemporary music, Molloy has proven himself an adept composer in this idiom and leaves one waiting, expectantly, for his next large-scale contribution.  

RTÉ Lyric FM commissioned two other shorter pieces for the celebration. In the opening of Kate Neville’s setting of Michael Coady’s ‘Though there are torturers (…there is music)’ for the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, sopranos intoned the text over muffled humming men. This interplay created a warm, ferruginous texture. Neville’s subdued music, however, appeared incongruous with the hopeful messages of the text (‘Though, at this moment, / Men are screaming in prisons, / There are jazzmen raising storms / Of sensuous celebration, / And orchestras releasing / Glories of the Spirit.’). Although brief, the work’s structure felt somewhat diffuse, which exacerbated the alarmingly abrupt ending. Moreover, intonation problems in the sopranos marred the performance.  

The third premiere was I dTírdhreach (In the Landscape) for cello octet by Elliot Murphy. In the opening, two successive solo airs unfolded. These melodies – each adorned with quick, light fioritura – overlapped. After deep drones cemented a harmonic foundation, a two-note fragment on harmonics created an ostinato around which a sonic frenzy whirled. As is often the case when a chamber work is performed in the main auditorium, it was hard for the performers to adequately project, and one missed the intimacy and the possibility of enjoying the intricacies of the counterpoint that would have been possible in a smaller venue. 

RTÉ interspersed these commissions among a grab-bag of classics: the overture to William Tell (who can think of anything but the commercials and parodies?), John Williams’ adaptation of the score to Fiddler on the Roof (generally cheesy), The Blue Danube (given a stale rendition that lacked crispness and inner propulsion), Danse Bacchanale (chosen to conclude the concert likely because of its grand fiery ending), and, as an encore, passages from Carmen. The surprise was A.J. Potter’s Fantasy for Clarinet and Strings; clarinettist John Finucane’s smooth and silky performance of the carefree, bucolic music acted as an effective advertisement for the recording he made on the Lyric FM label. Operatic selections – Lenksy’s Aria from Eugene Onegin sung by Gavin Ring, who made the forlornness of his character drip from his lines; ‘I Want Magic’ from A Streetcar Named Desire by André Previn, a last-minute substitute for ‘Voi Che Sapete’ from the Marriage of Figaro, performed by Emma Nash, whose rendition sounded constrained in the hall; and the duet ‘Parigi O Cara’ from La Traviata – rounded out the list. 

When RTÉ Lyric FM launched the open competition for the pieces premiered at this concert, they incited considerable controversy among composition circles by stating they were looking for ‘melodic, accessible new compositions.’ Such fraught criteria begs questions such as what is accessible, who decides what is accessible, and is the term merely a euphemism for something light, easy and unstimulating? Further, Lyric specified exact demands for the pieces they wanted: a 10–15 minute concerto in three movements for Irish harp, a 4–5 minute SATB setting of the Coady poem, and a 4–5 minute cello octet. Although Molloy’s concerto in particular transcended these qualifications, they still gave the impression that RTÉ is suspicious of the new, or at least senses they need to guide composers before they unleash them on a gala audience. One also couldn’t help speculating if the time limit influenced the abruptness of Neville’s work and if Molloy might have relished expanding his music to reach dimensions similar to those in his 20-minute Violin Concerto. 

The composers of the classics in the programme, it seems, did not grapple with the same constraints. (Bonjour, Monsieur Bizet, I want an opera from you, but you have to use this text, and you have to make it sound ‘melodic’ and ‘accessible’, so people will come, and oh, I almost forgot to say, you have to fit all four acts in under an hour because we have a tight budget. Got all that? Bon. Now go write a masterpiece!) One is only left wondering what could have happened if the institution allowed the composers more freedom.

Published on 7 May 2019

Tim Diovanni is a music journalist from New York and a graduate student in musicology at the TU Dublin Conservatory of Music and Drama.

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