Irish Youth Choir 21st Anniversary Concert

A preview of the Irish Youth Choir 21st Anniversary Concert.

This year the Irish Youth Choir celebrates its twenty-first anniversary and is marking the occasion with a gala concert in which they perform with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland a programme devoted entirely to the work of Irish composers. The conductor of the Irish Youth Choir, Dr Geoffrey Spratt, has always placed a commitment to the work of Irish composers firmly at the centre of his artistic policy – apart from performing music by Stanford and Fleischmann, the choir has also commissioned and performed major new works by Gerard Victory and by Séamas de Barra as well as making a commercial recording of masses and motets by the Cork-based composer Angel Climent. For the concert, which takes place on the 28th June in the National Concert Hall, it seemed particularly appropriate to programme two works by Aloys Fleischmann, Clare’s Dragoons and Song of the Provinces, as well as commission two new works for the occasion from Ciarán Tackney and Séamas de Barra.

In any other country, the continuing neglect and underestimation of a figure of the importance of Aloys Fleischmann would be considered scandalous, given the scope and extent of his role in Irish musical life. Apart from his seminal contribution to Irish musicology with his massive magnum opus, Sources of Irish Traditional Music – a labour of some forty years – and his involvement in music education, Fleischmann was also one of the most gifted Irish composers of his generation. His early music of the 1930s through to the 1950s is completely individual in utterance, a felicitous amalgam of influences deriving from Irish folk-music and Austro-German models. The best of these works are distinguished by a very high level of musical invention, rhythmic vitality, a piquant harmonic idiom and a taut structural sense.

Clare’s Dragoons (1945) was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of the death of Thomas Davis, poet and founder of the Young Ireland movement. Fleischmann responded with a setting of the famous ballad by Davis of the same name for baritone, choir and orchestra, with an elaborate part for war-pipes, which are used to intensely dramatic effect. This score elicited warm praise from Fleischmann’s contemporaries, and the composer Frederick May in an article written in 1949 wrote with admiration not only of the technical assurance of the score, but also of its poetic and evocative qualities. Song of the Provinces (1963) is, by contrast, a lighter work, conceived as a pièce d’occasion for a gala event. These two works are representative of Fleischmann’s music at its strongest and one hopes that it will prove possible before long for the Irish Youth Choir to make more commercial recordings of fine choral works such as these, which are deserving of a wider audience outside of Ireland.

The Cavan-based composer Ciarán Tackney has a long association with the Irish Youth Choir. Having performed a Gloria of his in 1997, it seemed fitting to ask him as one of the choir’s oldest members to compose a new work for this concert. Jubilate Deo is permeated by the buoyant additive rhythms and piquant diatonic discords which are distinctive hallmarks of his style.

Séamas de Barra is highly regarded as a composer of choral music, and has already written a major work, Canticum in laudibus, for the Irish Youth Choir as well as fulfilling other prestigious commissions. His choral music is notable for the remarkable technical assurance with which he handles this difficult medium, and his writing, while intensely demanding on the stamina and musicianship of the performers, is always exactly judged as to effect. His work is frequently highly dramatic and emotionally charged, displaying a fine imagination for sensuous choral sonorities. The harmonic idiom of these pieces arises out of a highly individual exploration of the tensions which can be obtained by the clash between an austere modality and a searing chromaticism. The closely worked polyphonic textures are frequently striking in their imaginative effect and create a sound world of compelling originality which is at once remote and impassioned. His contrapuntal writing is of a remarkable naturalness and virtuosity, such techniques always being deployed to an expressive end rather than a purely intellectual one. In recent years however, there has been a certain relaxation in the austerity of his earlier style, as evinced in a series of vivid shorter orchestral works. For Overture to a Masque – ‘The Vision of Delight’, de Barra has chosen to set lines from a masque by Ben Jonson. The text deals with the power of art to enchant and delight, ending with an invocation to the transformative potency of ‘Phantasy’, or imagination. The piece is scored with de Barra’s habitual virtuosity and makes maximal use of the colouristic effects that can be obtained from a large orchestra.

Published on 1 May 2002

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