Looking for a Link Among Irish Composers
Friday night’s RTÉ NSO concert conducted by David Brophy was part of their ongoing Towards 2022 season of Irish compositions. This particular programme, consisting of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Irish Rhapsody No. 2 ‘The Lament for the Son of Ossian’ (1903), John Buckley’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra (1992), and Ina Boyle’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Glencree’ (1924–7), reminded one of a dinner which, despite individual savoury parts, came across as disappointing and insubstantial.
In his second Irish Rhapsody, Stanford orchestrated and dramatised three folk tunes of which the third was the most affecting: a lilting lulling melody with a painful modal inflection. Sudden crescendos leading to bombastic exclamations – water boiling and then hissing down the sides of a pot – created a volatile seethe that recalled orchestral works by Elgar, Stanford’s contemporary, and, further afield, Sibelius; Brophy suggested the latter in the pre-concert talk.
Buckley’s organ concerto unfolded in one movement that fell into three distinct parts: an eruptive headlong first, an expansive other-worldly second, and an altered reprise of the first. Buckley’s orchestral writing in the second segment was the triumph of the concerto. In one passage of that segment, Buckley coloured a shimmering glistening sheen in the strings with a sustained pitch in the horn; in another, he built a prismatic sonic terrain; the lush ethereal upper strings bled over full-bodied low sonorities. One wished the organ, which was almost consistently explosive, had an exposed moment like one of these. The soloist, Fergal Caulfield, executed the demanding part with bravura and finesse.
Boyle’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Glencree’, provided an aural repose from the barrage of the concerto. In the beginning of the first movement, ‘On Lacken Hill,’ an oboe sang a tender pastoral line over a landscape of serene gleaming strings. But this movement suffered from structural patchiness; abrupt transitions jolted the listener between sections. A short scherzo, ‘Nightwinds in the Valley’, followed. While Boyle used some intriguing techniques, such as an ascending chromatic flurry tossed between instruments, the movement’s brevity was strikingly detrimental: one hoped for more music.
Boyle’s third movement, ‘Above Lough Bray,’ was the standout of the symphony. In the opening, a piercing sweeping chilly melody in the first violins glided through several registers. (Elaine Clark expertly led her section in spinning out this melody.) Tremolos churned in the inner strings, and the basses laid down a foundational plump pizzicato. Transitions in this movement sounded smooth and well-crafted, without the jagged edges of the first.
Brophy demonstrated superb musicianship throughout the performance. Every gesture was absolutely right for the moment, and his leadership enabled the orchestra to thrum and throb as an integrated hyper-attentive unit.
So why was one left disappointed by the concert as a whole? A programmer, in theory, curates a collection of works that collectively communicate meaningful messages that the audience can consider and assimilate. Reasoning drives each decision; the programmer strives for intended effects. This sense of design felt acutely absent in the concert. Besides the Irish nationality of the three composers, there was not a cogent or revealing thread that linked the pieces: they did not share a common style, period, idiom or other significant feature. In addition, the short duration of Boyle’s symphony – it lasted about 20 minutes – and its disjointed structure, which made it sound like the prelude to something more substantial, combined for a very weak end to the evening. Reversing the order of the Buckley and Boyle pieces would have been one simple way to make the programme seem more logical.
However, as it stood, the disunity and illogicality of the programme did a disservice to the compositions, which could each have benefited from more sympathetic and thoughtful programming.
Published on 7 February 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.