25 Years of Concorde

Cover of the September/ October 2001 issue of JMI – The Journal of Music in Ireland, in which this article appeared.

25 Years of Concorde

The director of the Irish new music ensemble Concorde looks back over the history of the group.

January, 1976: The scene is a small front room in Drumcondra. The mission is clear: contemporary music needs a champion. A number of musicians agree on this and plan to launch a group with a purpose in the autumn: to present the music of our time on a regular basis. What shall we be called? Someone suggests ‘Concorde’. Everyone sits in silence for a few minutes, then quietly murmurs ‘yes’. The connections are clear. The supersonic plane would fly its first commercial flight in 1976. What better symbol of modernity could one hope for? The obvious musical connotations (maybe ‘discord’ would have been more appropriate) reinforce the appropriateness of the image.

2001: Listeners to the ensemble Concorde ask innocently what the name means. These people were probably born around the same time as the plane. Or later. We explain. It doesn’t matter. The name is now synonymous with contemporary music in Ireland.

In 1976 America celebrated a 200th birthday. Undaunted by the Arts Council’s refusal to give any funding to a new and untried group, Concorde secured a guarantee to cover the expenses of two concerts (excluding any fees) from the American Embassy. The programmes were to be entirely of American music, most of it unheard before in Ireland (Babbitt, Harbison, Westergaard, Sessions, Kim, Ives, Schuller, Spies, Cowell, Carter, Barber, Gershwin and Copland). The performances took place in the rotunda of the American Embassy in Ballsbridge and the Royal College of Surgeons on Stephens Green and also featured a workshop at the Project Arts Centre. The audience at the launch was by invitation only and it was a gala affair. The programme was probably the toughest one we have ever done and we spent more than six months rehearsing. It was a success. Concorde was launched.

Twenty-five years later the mission remains: championing new music. Some things have had to be changed however. The first programme stated: ‘The musicians of Concorde are individuals committed to the performance of music from the 20th century. The name Concorde has been chosen as a symbol of new horizons in this century.’ At the time it was hard to imagine things five years down the line, but soon ‘20th century’ had to be changed to ‘contemporary’ – still inadequate to describe the music we play. Now we are in the twenty-first century and the music has moved on, along with us. Over twenty-five years Concorde has presented nearly 200 performances, given 27 concerts in venues outside of Ireland, played in 8 foreign countries, recorded 15 compositions for CD, performed 75 different pieces by Irish composers in the past 5 years alone, 26 of which were commissioned pieces. Clearly there is still a need for such commitment in the twenty-first century.

The musicians have remained much the same over the lifetime of Concorde, with few changes along the way. In any ensemble, the relationship between players must be a happy one and over time the group becomes like a family. The slightest change in humour in one player is picked up instantly by the others, who jump in to compensate. A hesitation or momentary slip will be caught and covered, a lifted eyebrow signals an entry. A sense of humour is essential and rehearsals provide plenty of light relief from the stress of preparations.

While I have been the Director from the start, everyone contributes to the programming. Instrumentation is drawn from a relatively small core. In this way, it is a manageable ensemble – not an orchestra. Madeleine Staunton, flutist, and myself as pianist have performed with the group from the start. One of the core instruments is violin: Alan Smale joined Concorde in 1978 and retired to allow more time for other interests after 20 years. Elaine Clark, his co-leader in the NSO, has been with Concorde since April 1999. Brighid Mooney was cellist for the first ten years of Concorde and David James began playing with Concorde in 1987. Brian O’Rourke was the clarinettist from the start until Paul Roe joined in 1992. Richard O’Donnell introduced percussion to the ensemble in March 1985 when Chinese bowls appeared for Henry Cowell’s music. Vocal parts were performed by Anne Woodworth and Anne Marie O’Sullivan over many years and since April 1993 soprano Tine Verbeke has been with us. Many others have joined on a more occasional basis and Darby Carroll and Rodney Senior have always been there with the technical support.

Generally the ensemble is small enough that a conductor is not required and this is the preferred format. However, Proinnsias O Duinn has been a valued contributor since the early days when the works are large or complex and require additional direction.

Concorde is strongly based on the enthusiasm, loyalty and professional commitment of the musicians involved. We are there to give a voice to composers, to interpret and project, to represent and encourage. But mostly, to explore. Together. Composers must search endlessly. Performers too need to expand their horizons and be stimulated. Our audiences must be eager for a challenge and willing to join us as we try things out. It is only by merging the three elements – creator, performer and listener – that music can be tried, tested and allowed to develop. We’re all in it together. There is no guarantee of success. No guarantee that everyone will be happy. But over time, works will emerge, composers will grow, performers will become more comfortable with new ideas, and audiences will be part of the process. For us, and clearly for the composers and listeners who join us, this is the excitement. We are explorers.

New music is new to everyone. But especially to the audience. We at least have the benefit of having spent time with it. For this reason Concorde has always encouraged composers to introduce their works to the audience, to give some guidance to the listener. If the composer cannot be there, we will provide the context and share the benefit of our experience with the music. We must be tour guides as well as explorers.

The concept of a specialist ensemble for contemporary music was unheard of in Ireland in 1976. Despite the presence of numerous international models, the Arts Council questioned the validity of such a concept as late as the early 1980s, asking if indeed there was sufficient repertoire to justify such an ensemble and whether it might be better if we were to include Schubert and others of his time in our programming.

There were other problems, such as finding suitable venues. On one never-to-be-forgotten snowy night in November 1978 we tried the John Player Theatre and were called to task by music critic Charles Acton as there were probably more people on the stage than in the audience. Experience has shown that choice of venue is critically important to the presentation of new music. In April 1978 Concorde gave the first of a series of three concerts at the Hugh Lane Gallery on Parnell Square, a venue little used prior to that apart from Therese Timoney’s series of Beethoven Violin Sonatas. We found it ideal and it remains to this day our favourite (and most successful) venue of all. Eventually the Gallery bought a piano, hired an organiser, and now the ‘Sundays at Noon’ series provides a continuous stream of well-supported adventurous programmes.

Another turning point with the Arts Council arose over the issue of free admission to concerts. We felt that an informal setting and free admission were essential to the success of concerts where no one was likely to have heard the music before. Reduce the element of risk. The Arts Council said free concerts were not acceptable. We argued our case and it is now widely accepted that contemporary music fares best in such circumstances.

In our most recent concerts at Galway Arts Festival, the programmes included premieres by two young composers: Rob Canning and Ed Bennett. Both works used electronics and were wonderful examples of stimulating new creations. These composers were born in 1974 and 1975 respectively. They certainly weren’t writing music when Concorde began! And if they had been, they wouldn’t have had access to the technical facilities that form an essential element of their music. This is just one of a number of changes that Concorde has witnessed. The birth of the personal computer has meant that scores, even from student composers, are no longer a strain on the eyes; information can be readily accessed on the web; programmes are easily prepared to a professional standard; even mailing of notices can take place by e-mail. Our appearance too has changed from long dresses and dinner jackets to more sleek ‘all black’. The establishment of the Contemporary Music Centre has made it easier to research Irish repertoire. Composers are now numerous and search for us instead of vice versa!

At the beginning, programmes focused on the classics of early twentieth-century music as both players and audiences built foundations. Names that appear in programmes in the early years are Stravinsky, Gershwin, Copland, Hindemith, Ives, Varese, Webern, Schoenberg and Berg. In 1978 Irish composers Seoirse Bodley, James Wilson and Aloys Fleischmann appear. At the Twentieth Century Festival in January 1980 a better balance of new Irish works with recent works by major international composers is struck: Concorde perform George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale of 1969 with music by Frank Corcoran, Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord (1952) is played alongside a commissioned work by Jane O’Leary, Luciano Berio’s Folksongs of 1964 joins a commissioned work by Raymond Deane. This model of programming is one which has worked well over the years, with the proportion of Irish works increasing enormously in recent times.

In 1985 a conscious decision was made to include more women composers when it became obvious that our programmes did not reflect balance in this regard. It would now appear ridiculous to advertise a concert as ‘devoted to the works of female composers’ as we did in June 1987 at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. If such a thing happens now, it is certainly unworthy of observation.

In May 1980 Concorde’s first concerts abroad were at two centres in Berlin. In February 1981 Concorde undertook a three-centre tour of The Netherlands. It soon became clear to us that we had an important role to play in bringing the hitherto unknown music of Irish composers to audiences outside this island. It was essential to build a strong repertoire of Irish music for touring purposes. The programme in 1981 included works by John Kinsella, Seoirse Bodley, Brian Boydell, David Byers, Jane O’Leary and Jolyon Brettingham Smith. Fifteen years later Kinsella’s Aberration, commissioned for the Berlin concert in 1980, sits comfortably alongside a new commission, Symphony for Five at a performance in the Hugh Lane Gallery in September 1996.

This raises the question of how the ‘life’ of a piece is determined. Why is it that some pieces are performed once and others many times? Sometimes many years pass between performances. There are many factors of course; the whole process of performing new music is a filtering one. It takes several performances, with an audience, before one can gauge the success of a piece. It also needs to be in the ‘right’ place on a programme. Programme design is a creative aspect to presentation which can never be underestimated. Surrounded by the ‘wrong’ dynamic, a piece can suffer. The route from first rehearsal, where performers remain puzzled as they try to decipher notation and reach inside the brain of the composer, to public performance and some form of assessment is fascinating. It’s always satisfying when initial reactions of doubt are transformed into ‘…good piece!’ at the performance stage.

The current rush to commission new work is somewhat worrying. It often takes many subsequent airings before players and audiences come to terms with a work. Different audiences, different players, different venues-a new work needs to stand up to all of these to be fully assessed.

Concorde does try to maintain continued contact with many of its compositional ‘children’, but one of the difficulties in doing this is the scarcity of opportunities for repeat performances within Ireland. While the musical environment has changed dramatically in Ireland over 25 years (many more commissions and inclusions of new work in mixed programmes by performing groups and festivals), there is still resistance from venues to an all-contemporary programme. International touring has become an essential part of Concorde’s activities if only to allow repeat performances of repertoire. For example, Raymond Deane’s, Seachanges, now on the course of study for students doing Leaving Cert. Music, began life as a commission from Concorde and was premiered at an RTÉ-promoted event in the NCH in February 1994. It continued to ‘grow’ through subsequent performances at two other venues in Dublin and in Galway, but also in The Netherlands, Italy, Romania and Latvia.

Concorde is a member of the European Conference of Promoters of New Music and has found comfort in the association with other like-minded groups. By sharing exchanges with groups such as Interensemble from Padua and Archaeus from Romania, we have learned to see ourselves in an international context. The quality of audiences in different countries can be both terrifying and tremendously encouraging. The warmth of response from a full house in De IJsbreker, Amsterdam (a custom built venue which hosts only contemporary music concerts on an almost nightly basis in a city with a much smaller population than Dublin) reassured us that our performances – and contemporary Irish music – could be welcomed with enthusiasm on the world stage. The sight of a packed Palazzo in Venice eagerly listening to every note of pieces from Deane to Martin (following an introduction by an interpreter) reminds us of what it’s all about – communication! We feel like Ambassadors.

Work with international performers, such as percussionist Morris Lang from New York, violist Maurizio Barbetti from Italy, clarinettist Harry Sparnaay from Amsterdam, has also been helpful in assessing our work. Shared concerts with these performers stand out as special moments when different cultures came together through music.

International composers too have been appreciative of the positive and professional approach taken by Concorde: Georgio Colombo Taccani from Italy, Roderik de Man and Tera de Marez Oyens from The Netherlands, Nicola LeFanu, Katharine Norman and Robert Keeley from England, Dmitri Smirnov from Russia, Pascale Jakubowsky from France, Hilary Tann from the USA. All of them have been to Ireland for performances and rehearsals with Concorde.

Concorde does not work in isolation: it is part of an international network and its role is to work with and respond to audiences, composers, other performers.

With all the changes around us, one aspect remains the same: our attitude to playing new music. The music is the focus of our interest. It is a challenge. It is exciting. Our job is to present it in the best possible light. This is what matters. While funding from the Arts Council has increased over the years, and IMRO has been a consistent if diminishing supporter, the commitment of musicians is not related to money. The interest is genuine. There is always a sense of expectancy as we respond to new scores. We are there to learn. Each performance generates a response which determines what happens next. It is the very unpredictablility of new music which is part of its attraction.

For Concorde, what happens next? Following an American debut in Chicago in August, we participate in the other half of an exchange project with Festival Spaziomusica in Sardinia in December. We preview new works by young/student composers in the Autumn and profile the Slovak composer Iris Szeghy along with other composers from Slovakia. We participate in RTÉ’s Musician of the Future Competition in February 2002 and present works by past winners of the composer section Grainne Mulvey, Elaine Agnew, Rob Canning and Ailís Ní Ríain at that time. We share a programme with virtuoso recorder player Jorge Isaac from Amsterdam in March. There’s plenty of music waiting to be played and waiting to be written – waiting to be enjoyed. By all of us.

Published on 1 September 2001

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