Concert Review: Composing the Island: 'Venus Blazing'

Friday, October 7, 2016 - 11:30pm



In the closing weekend of the three-week Composing the Island festival, Venus Blazing was a concert of all 21st-Century Irish orchestral music. The title of the concert was taken from the opening item on the programme, Deirdre Gribbin's Venus Blazing (2001) for violin and orchestra. The astonishing opening of the piece immediately set this piece apart from a lot of recent orchestral works, which so often favour thick chordal textures and largely static modal harmonies. Instead, Gribbin's work opens with the most delicate fluttering in the upper range of the solo violin, beautifully nestled within the rest of the string section, playing similar material, but mostly in a slightly lower register so that foreground and background were crystal clear. From the outset, this is a work of careful orchestration, with subtle touches coming from each section of the stage. Tiny gongs add surprising splashes of colour as the shifting sounds move down through the registers, ending the first movement with low sustained notes in the cellos and double basses as the soloist's last few notes drift upwards.


As the first movement leaves you captivated, wondering what could come next, the second movement does not disappoint. Taking the still-delicate sound world into richer, darker textures, this is a piece that really feels like it is taking you on a journey, an experience all too rare in much contemporary music. There is a complex ambiguity in these first two movements where pitched material seems sometimes to provide a harmonic layer to the music, and sometimes a textural one, and always a little of both. How it shifts between these functions is partly what makes the music so beguiling. The third movement though, brashly breaks this spell, opening with an overenthusiastic violin melody like a kind of frenetic Irish jig. It was actually a little disappointing to be back on such well-worn territory as a clearly defined melody-and-accompaniment, and a classical violin drawing a little too obviously on traditional Irish influences. As the finale progresses — and it is a little overly long — it revisits some of its earlier character, but never quite captures the same magic from earlier.


Deirdre Gribbin's music seems to be rarely played in the republic (she was born in Belfast and has long been resident in the UK). This was my first time hearing her orchestral work, and that is a shame, but also a very rewarding discovery. I very much looking forward to hearing more of her work.


Gribbin's Venus Blazing and other orchestral works are available on Volume 4 of the RTÉ Lyric FM CD series Composers of Ireland.


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Donnacha Dennehy's Crane (2009) was originally conceived as the music for a proposed ballet for the cranes that lined Dublin's skyline during the construction boom of the preceding years. The ballet never came to pass, but the music was reworked into an orchestral piece in its own right, and the result was a work that was distinctly Dennehy's. Ever-changing time signatures create a most energetic rhythmic language as repeated chords in the strings are punctuated by unpredictable and emphatic strokes on the bass drum. In fact, these passages are particularly reminiscent of his earlier chamber work Glamour Sleeper (2002), which is partly why the composer's voice comes across so clearly.


Dennehy's opening material maintains its driving motion for as long as it can before it gives way to more sustained chords in the strings and new harmonies finally break the stasis of the opening repetitions. This gear-change however makes the structure feel uneven, and throughout the piece the orchestration tends to move in broad strokes. This might not be Dennehy's most original or best work, and it suffers for being programmed alongside more consummately orchestrated pieces, but even at half tilt, his music is impressively entertaining, engaging and unmistakably his own.


Dennehy's Crane and other orchestral works are available on Volume 9 of the RTÉ Lyric FM CD series Composers of Ireland.


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Last year, when The Irish Times launched its retrospective of the best 100 Irish art works of the past 100 years, only to omit any musical works from the list, the Association of Irish Composers polled its members to propose their own list of 100 Irish compositions from 1916-2016. (There were plans for a newspaper article on the results and a proposed tie-in with the Composing the Island series, but these plans did not come to pass). One work that received several votes in that poll was Stephen Gardner's NEVER...NEVER...NEVER... (2003), so I was most keen to hear it for the first time.


The title, of course, is taken from Ian Paisley's incendiary speech on the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and Gardner imagines the piece as a musical interpretation of how Francis Bacon might have painted Paisley's portrait. The tension of these two characters is certainly conveyed most powerfully by the music. The ferocious intensity of the heavy orchestral writing seems to grow relentlessly. Several slow-moving lines from all sections of the orchestra continually climb on top of each other. At first I wonder whether this is an overused technique, a cheap trick even, to create a memorable, but easy impression on the listener, but through its unrelenting determination, I am quickly won over. The music has convinced me of its sincerity and its intention.


Cutting through the swelling orchestra, violent bursts from the two snare drum players (separated at the back of the stage so we hear their notes leaping across the space), begin to come together, threading themselves into longer phrases as if finishing each other's sentences, or perhaps, as if shouting angrily over one another. And even as the snare drum hammering rises to an unforgiving climax, still the orchestra does not let up in its slow, booming lines. The effect is visceral. It feels like the orchestra is just screaming at us now, in fear, in anger, in frustration, and I look around the auditorium and wonder how long the audience can take it. At last, there is some relief, and as the tension begins to clear, I can clearly observe the still-heightened heart rates in myself and those around me reeling from the effects of the music. As the piece comes to a close, there is a short stunned silence before the applause.


Gardner's NEVER...NEVER...NEVER... and other orchestral works are available on Volume 7 of the RTÉ Lyric FM CD series Composers of Ireland.


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After a few minutes, the players were once again in position to play the next piece but the silence in the hall was gently broken by some muffled notes coming from somewhere else in the auditorium. At first people looked around, presuming it was a mobile phone, but as the sound slowly grew louder we could make out the strains of popular old war-time songs coming through the speakers. The compositional voice of Brian Irvine, with its oft-times irreverent mash up of the popular and the avant-garde, is unmistakeable.


Irvine's Big Daddy Motorhead (2009) “plays with the idea of past performers emerging from the walls in the middle of the night and having their own celebration: Ruby Murray dances with Big Daddy, Motorhead’s Lemmy and big Ian Paisley gossip with the Dalai Lama, José Carreras and John McCormack bellow out a few bars of Puccini with The Art Ensemble of Chicago as suffragettes gallop around the hall on the back of Professor Croker’s horse.” In an earlier recording of this piece, performed by the Ulster Orchestra and released by the CMC in 2011, the pre-recorded songs are absent so Irvine's decision to introduce them into this live performance is a nice twist. Once the recordings establish themselves, moving through a collage of different eras of popular music, the orchestra enters with the gentle sounds of the harp and the piano in its top register with sustained chords high up in strings. This delicate texture works very well with the recordings, so the sound is not too cluttered. As the orchestra shifts gear then, the recordings drop out for much of what follows.


The instrumental music swerves wildly through cinematic soundscapes, at one moment like a raucous western movie, the next like an unnerving Bernard Herrmann soundtrack. Through all this, the lengthy absence of the pre-recorded music gives us the feeling that it had been merely a gimmick, used up early on and thrown away, which, if true, would have altered our experience of the piece greatly. However, as the orchestra returns to its delicate opening material, the recordings gently fade back into the mix, bookending the work very nicely, while also having the curious effect of taking the sense of nostalgia from the war-time songs and bringing it to bear on the work itself, as if we might remember fondly the surprising introduction to the piece which we experienced only ten minutes earlier.


Irvine's Big Daddy Motorhead is available on Volume 10 of the Contemporary Music Centre's CD series Contemporary Music from Ireland.



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The finale to the night's programme is the world premiere of a new work commissioned especially for the occasion, Andrew Hamilton's C (2016). Hamilton is a composer very much in the minimalist vein, but with a personal language which is immediately recognisable. His material is made up of tiny musical gestures, often separated out by long silences at first, which slowly come together, but never in the order you might expect. Just as you think you can recognise an emerging pattern, a new gesture is introduced, and this in turn forces the material to reorganise itself around this new member in a cast of characters. And they do feel very much like characters. Each tiny fragment is uniquely different from everything else that surrounds it — a light glissando, quickly sweeping upwards on a solo violin; four short chords sliding downwards in the brass section; and a variety of interjections from the percussion — so that the evolving interplay of the many characters is always clear.


The piece gathers its momentum from the process of bringing the fragments closer together. Once we have become familiar with each character, the silences between them are eventually left behind. Now our attention leaps from one section of the orchestra to the other as the disparate gestures are played in quick succession to form larger phrases, simply by virtue of their proximity, straining to find a kind of unity in their diversity. The result is quite satisfying. Each musical gesture is well-formed and well-orchestrated and the richness of the ideas maintains our interest throughout.


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This was an impressive concert, with five very diverse and very distinctive voices — Gribbin's subtlety, Gardner's intensity, Hamilton's humour, Dennehy's rock 'n' roll energy and Irvine's juxtapositions of the popular and the avant-garde. Together, they showcase the impressive range and quality of today's Irish orchestral music.


Dr Peter Moran is a composer and performer, and founder and editor of the AIC New Music Journal.

The Venus Blazing was performed by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, under Gavin Maloney, on 23rd September 2016