Archive for RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra

Britten: War Requiem

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I was back at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for an immensely powerful and moving performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. This vast work is composed for two orchestras (a standard symphony orchestra and a smaller chamber orchestra), two choirs (a chorus of adult voices and a boy’s choir) and three solo vocalists. Last night the soloists were Ailish Tynan (soprano), Gavan Ring (baritone) and Robin Tritschler (tenor), who performed with the combined forces of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the RTÉ National Concert Orchestra, the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and the boy Choristers of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, all conducted by David Brophy.

You can see the members of the Philharmonia Choir in position in the above photograph, which I took about ten minutes before the performance began; the choristers were out of sight in the gallery above and behind me, near where the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, was sitting.

The War Requiem was commissioned for the consecration in 1962 of the new Coventry Cathedral built to replace the 14th century cathedral that was destroyed along with most of the city in a devastating air raid ion 1940. It’s a remarkable work that juxtaposes settings of traditional liturgical Latin texts against poems by Wilfred Owen. The idea of doing this may have originated with the first poem Britten uses, Anthem for Doomed Youth, which itself deploys words associated with religious services to emphasize the soulless brutality of warfare:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

These settings are sung by soloists accompanied by the smaller chamber orchestra (positioned at the front of the stage) while the more traditional liturgical elements involve the larger forces arrayed behind.

I’ve known this work for many years largely through the classic 1963 recording conducted by Britten himself, with Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as soprano, tenor and baritone soloists respectively. I’m so familiar with that version that it was at first a little disconcerting to hear very different voices, but that very soon gave way into an appreciation of three very fine artists in their own right. All three were excellent last night, but I have to give extra special plaudits to Ailish Tynan, who sang with extraordinary passion in the Sanctus and Libera Me. The Latin text of the latter section includes:

Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo
dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna.
Quando coeli movendi sunt i terra.
Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis
et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde.
Libera me, Domine.

Ailish Tynan performed this not just as an evocation of the horrors of wars past but also with a sense of anguished foreboding about wars yet to come. It was deeply moving and clearly heartfelt. I found this from her on Twitter this morning:

The first few bars of the War Requiem are enough to tell you right from the start this is music is coming from the same imagination that gave us Peter Grimes and a host of other masterpieces, and the quality of the music is sustained throughout the 85 minutes or so of its duration. There are some wonderful touches in the orchestration, such as the Dies Irae (with a definite nod in the direction of Verdi, but with tricky 7/8 rhythms). The Boys Choir was also used extremely effectively, the fact that they could not be seen (at least by me) adding to the ethereal quality of their voices. In all, it added up to an intense experience, I think for the musicians as well as the audience.

At the end of the music, David Brophy kept his arms (and baton) extended for a considerable time before gradually lowering them to signal the end of the performance. I really appreciated that several seconds of silence, which was immaculately observed by the audience. It’s good to have a time to reflect on what you’ve just heard before the applause begins. When the ovation had died down, the elderly lady sitting next to me (whom I’d never met before) turned to me and said `Wasn’t that wonderful?’. It was only then that I realised how powerfully I’d been affected. I tried to answer, but found I was a bit choked, and all I could get out was “Yes, it was”. I hope that didn’t come across as rude. It’s just that sometimes music expresses things that words can’t convey. Actually, come to think of it, that’s what it’s for.

Anyway, you don’t need to take my word for how good a concert it was, because you can watch the whole thing here:

(Please note that there are quite a few minutes of blank screen before it starts, but it is there!)

Congratulations to all the musicians involved last night for a tremendous performance, and thank you for a wonderful experience. It was a privilege to be there.

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Bax, Vaughan Williams & Potter at the NCH.

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I was once again at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a concert by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, this time conducted by Kenneth Montgomery. I took the above picture about five minutes before the start of the concert and, although a few more people arrived before the music began, it was a very low attendance. I don’t think the hall was more than 20% full. I’m not sure why. Perhaps Storm Callum made it difficult for some to make the journey to Dublin? I was delayed a bit on the way there from Maynooth, but I’m glad I made it because it was a fine concert.

I always appreciate it when unfamiliar works are programmed alongside more standard repertoire, and last night provided a good example of that. One piece was an established favourite among concert-goers, another I have on CD but have never heard live, and one I had never heard before at all.

The opening piece was In Memoriam by Arnold Bax. Although considered by many to be an archetypal English composer, Bax had a strong affinity for Ireland and indeed lived here from 1911 until the outbreak of war in 1914. I’ve always felt Bax’s music was greatly influenced by Sibelius, but he was very interested in Celtic culture and that comes across in his In Memoriam, which is built around a very folk-like melody. The work was composed to honour Pádraig Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 uprising, who was subsequently executed by the British authorities, and was written in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion in 1916. It is a very fine piece, in my opinion, starting in a rather elegiac mood, but with passages that celebrate of Pearce’s life than mourn his death, and the ending is very moving, like a beautiful sunset.

There was then a short delay while various rearrangements were made on stage. Off went the wind instruments and percussion, and into the space vacated by their departure moved a subset of the string instruments, creating a second (smaller) string orchestra separated from the remaining musicians. In addition, the principals of the relevant sections arranged themselves to form a string quartet around the conductor’s podium. If you didn’t know before reading this what was about to be played, then that description will no doubt have led you to conclude that it must be the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is an evergreen concert piece, for good reason, and the string players of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra delivered a very fine account of it. I remarked on the fine playing of the string section after the last concert I attended at the NCH, and they did it again.

After the interval was a piece I had never heard before, the Sinfonia “De Profundis” by Belfast-born A.J. `Archie’ Potter, composed fifty years ago in 1968, and first performed in 1969 by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin. The title is a reference to Psalm 130, and some of the thematic material comes from liturgical music. In the composer’s own words:

As the title suggests, it is a musical account of one man’s own progress from despair over a particular circumstance in his life to spiritual recovery and (for the time being of course) triumph over the powers of darkness.

Although `a journey from darkness into light’ is a description that could apply to many symphonies (especially those of Beethoven), this work in five movements does not have a typically `symphonic’ structure in that it is based on variations on a theme drawn from a 16th century carol spread throughout the whole work rather than confined to one movement, alongside another element comprising a `tone row’. The juxtaposition of `traditional’ diatonic and `modernist’ serialist explorations generates tension which is only released at the very end, when it is released by the arrival of a new theme borrowed from the `Old 124th’.

That brief description of what is going on in this work doesn’t do justice at all to the impression it creates on the listener, which is of a richly varied set of textures sometimes mournful but sometimes boisterous, with dashes of robust humour thrown in for good measure. I’m not at all familiar with A.J. Potter, but I must hear more of his music. Based on this piece, he was both clever and expressive.

As a bonus we had an orchestral encore in the form of another piece by Archie Potter, much shorter and much lighter. Orchestral encores are rare in the UK, but seem to be less so here in Ireland.

After that I left in order to return to Maynooth. Appropriately enough, in the light of the piece by Bax, I took a train from Pearse station…

100 Years of ‘The Planets’

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on September 29, 2018 by telescoper

Not a lot of people know that today, 29th September 2018, is exactly one hundred years since the first ever performance of The Planets by Gustav Holst which took place at the Queen’s Hall in London.

As it happens, although I’ve heard countless performances of this work on the radio and on record, I had never heard it live – until last night at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

From its arresting opening with the strings beating out quintuple time col legno battuto on Mars, The Bringer of War to the wordless singing at the end of Neptune, The Mystic the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by José Serebrier (and at the end, and in the wings, the ladies voices of the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir) gave a very good account of this enduringly popular work. The centrepiece of this suite of seven movements is Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity which consists of an intro and and outro either side of the famous ‘big tune’ (“Thaxted”) often sung as the hymn I Vow To Thee My Country. The string playing at that section was exceptional, with a lovely rich texture and a very well chosen stately tempo.

The only disappointment of this performance for me was the ending. The voices off are supposed to fade away gently until they are inaudible, but last night they cut off abruptly, rather ruining the intended effect.

This didn’t stop the audience giving the Orchestra a standing ovation, however, so obviously not everyone was bothered by the ending.

For the record I’ll just mention that the first half of the concert consisted of two shorter works. The opening piece was one of Leopold Stokowski’s rather unnecessary orchestral arrangements of music by Bach, in this case the famous Toccata & Fugue in D Minor. I spent the entire performance looking at the NCH’s fine concert organ and wishing the original was being played on that. Still, at least the Stokowski arrangement didn’t have a harpsichord in it.

The other first-half piece was far more interesting (to me), the world premiere of a piece by the conductor José Serebrier called Symphonic B A C H Variations for Piano and Orchestra. This is like a piano concerto in four movements each based a little riff made the four notes B A C and H (in German musical notation, B is B flat and H is B Natural – don’t ask me why). It’s an intriguing piece, which I hope I get to hear again, and was very well played by young Alexandre Kantorow.

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (`Resurrection’) at the National Concert Hall, Dublin

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening performance of the new season of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. As well as being the first concert of the season, it was also my first ever visit to the National Concert Hall. To mark the occasion we were in the presence of the Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D Higgins, and his wife Sabena. By `occasion’ I of course mean the first concert of the season, rather than my first visit to the NCH. After the concert the audience were all treated to a glass of Prosecco on the house too!

I’ve done quite a few reviews from St David’s Hall in Cardiff over the years, so before writing about the music I thought I’d compare the venues a little. The National Concert Hall was built in 1865 and soon after its construction it was converted into the main building of University College Dublin. It was converted to a concert venue when UCD moved out of the city centre, and fully re-opened in 1981. It is a bit smaller than St David’s – capacity 1200, compared with 2000 – and does not have such a fine acoustic, but it is a very nice venue with a distinctive and decidedly more intimate vibe all of its own. I had a seat in the centre stalls, which cost me €40, which is about the same as one would expect to pay in Cardiff.

The NCH is situated close to St Stephen’s Green, which is a 15 minute walk from Pearse Station or a 30 minute walk from Connolly (both of which are served by trains from Maynooth). The weather was pleasant yesterday evening so I walked rather than taking the bus or Luas from Connolly. I passed a number of inviting hostelries on the way but resisted the temptation to stop for a pint in favour of a glass of wine in the NCH bar before the performance.

Anyway, last night’s curtain-raiser involved just one piece – but what a piece! – Symphony No.2 (“Resurrection”) by Gustav Mahler. This is a colossal work, in five movements, that lasts about 90 minutes. The performance involved not only a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, but also two solo vocalists and a sizeable choir (although the choir does not make its entrance until the start of the long final movement, about an hour into the piece). The choir in this case was the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir. At various points trumpets and/or French horns moved offstage into the wings and, for the finale, into the gallery beside the choir.

About two years ago I blogged about the first performance I had ever heard of the same work. Hearing it again in a different environment in no way diminished its impact.

Stunning though the finale undoubtedly was, I was gripped all the way through, from the relatively sombre but subtly expressive opening movement, through the joyously dancing second that recalls happier times, the third which is based on a Jewish folk tune and which ends in a shattering climax Mahler described as “a shriek of despair”, and the fourth which is built around a setting of one of the songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, sung beautifully by Jennifer Johnson (standing in wonderfully for Patricia Bardon, who was unfortunately indisposed). Jennifer Johnson has a lovely velvety voice very well suited to this piece, which seems more like a contralto part than a mezzo. The changing moods of the work are underlined by a tonality that shifts from minor to major and back again. All that was very well performed, but as I suspect is always the case in performances of this work, it was the climactic final movement – which lasts almost half an hour and is based on setting of a poem mostly written by Mahler himself, sung by Orla Boylan – that packs the strongest emotional punch.

The massed ranks of the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir (all 160 of them) weren’t called upon until this final movement, but as soon as they started to sing they made an immediate impact. As the symphony moved inexorably towards its climax the hairs on the back of my neck stood up in anticipation of a thrilling sound to come. I wasn’t disappointed. The final stages of this piece are sublime, jubilant, shattering, transcendent but, above all, magnificently, exquisitely loud! The Choir, responding in appropriate fashion to Mahler’s instruction to sing mit höchster Kraft, combined with the full force of the Orchestra and the fine concert organ of the NCH to create an overwhelming wall of radiant sound.

Mahler himself wrote of the final movement:

The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.

Well, who knows where genius comes from, but Mahler was undoubtedly a genius. People often stay that his compositions are miserable, angst-ridden and depressing. I don’t find that at all. It’s true that this, as well as Mahler’s other great works, takes you on an emotional journey that is at times a difficult one. There are passages that are filled with apprehension or even dread. But without darkness there is no light. The ending of the Resurrection Symphony is all the more triumphant because of what has come before.

The end of the performance was greeted with rapturous applause (and a well-deserved standing ovation). Congratulations to conductor Robert Trevino, the soloists, choir and all the musicians for a memorable concert. On my way out after the Prosecco I picked up the brochure for the forthcoming season by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, which runs until next May. I won’t be attend all the Friday-night concerts, but I will try to make as many as I can of the ones that don’t involve harpsichords.

Update: I hadn’t realised that the concert was actually broadcast on TV and then put on YouTube; here is a video of the whole thing: