Tuesday, February 4, 2014

RTE Orchestra Horizons Series III

After two great (and free!) concerts featuring the work of contemporary Irish composers, I was back at the National Concert Hall for the third installment of the RTE National Symphony Orchestra Horizons Contemporary Music Series.  This week, the featured composer was Brian Irvine.

"Mavericks & Unicorns"

Frank Zappa- Dupree's Paradise (1979)
Brian Irvine- Big Daddy, Motorhead (2009)
Brian Irvine- À mon seul désir for orchestra and violin (2014) RTE Commission / World Premiere
Charles Ives- Unanswered Question (1946)

Composer in Conversation

Before the performance, Mr. Irvine sat down with Evonne Ferguson, director of the Contemporary Music Centre (CMC).  He was engaging, entertaining, and passionate about his music.  When asked about his title for the show, "Mavericks and Unicorns," he explained that he has been interested and influenced by the American ideal of rugged individualism and the very Wild West nature of the 20th century American classical music scene.  We'll get to that when we talk about messrs. Zappa and Ives.  Of unicorns, À mon seul désir, the new commissioned work, was named for a series of medieval French tapestries held in a Paris museum.  This series of six woven tapestries depict scenes of each of the five senses and a central piece depicting desire.  The common figures in each are a lady, a lion, and a unicorn.

How does he get the image of these tapestries into the concerto for violin?  Does he at all?  Not really, it seems.  The composer described composition in a very interesting way, to paraphrase...
Composing is like being dropped in the ocean.  Once can swim in any direction to begin, change direction at a whim, and stop whenever the mood strikes.  It's like getting a box of noises like LEGO toys and building with them.
 The concerto was composed not only with the particular soloist in mind, but with the soloist (Darragh Morgan) providing feedback and input throughout the process.  Both the composer and the soloist grew up in Northern Ireland and now live in the Republic of Ireland.  I was very interested to hear (as an American born in the 1980's) the answer when Ms. Ferguson asked what effects his Northern Ireland upbringing had on his works.  He answered very somberly that it is impossible to grow up in such a turbulent and tragic time as The Troubles and not be influenced in some way.  Composers from "The North" seem to have more individualist tendencies, rather like the American scene.

He began his music education career with a series of "Rock Camps" held in his attic after he had years of experience playing in punk bands.  I would have liked to have seen some photos of the composer in the English punk scene.  Safety pins?  Green spiky hair?  Maybe...

After the Rock Camps, he began working on other youth and amateur music projects, and he shared one particularly touching story with us.  To paraphrase again...
We were having a kid club orchestra, where people of all ages and abilities get together to compose and perform a new piece of music in three hours.  Recently, one happened to have six first-chair orchestra players with a bunch of beginner kids.  There is lots of improvisation in an event like this, and the conductor sometimes waves different groups "out" and "in" to the performance.  During one moment, the conductor cued a solo from a four-year-old fiddle beginner, who was intently and desperately trying to coax any kind of sound from the instrument.  The result was so captivating in the moment, the sound so fragile and unique, that the rest of the orchestra and audience was spellbound, totally unbeknownst to the intent fiddler.  Later, the conductor zeroed in on an (unnamed) orchestra principal, who went into a frenzied Prokofiev concerto- but the mood and setting were destroyed by this sudden bold statement, and it was totally overshadowed by the desperate scrapings of the four-year-old beginner.
What about the other piece on the program, Big Daddy, Motorhead?  I was curious about that myself.  Did he mean Motorhead like, Motörhead?  The heavy metal band famous for Ace of Spades?

The band of whom Dave Grohl said,
"They are the kind of band that if they moved in next to you, your lawn would die!"
Yes, that band.  This piece was penned for the rededication of Ulster Hall in Belfast, the large event venue of the city.  The composer asked himself, "What would it sound like if every event that ever happened here happened again, all at the same time?"  The hall had been home to concerts, boxing and professional wrestling matches, speeches by world leaders, and all other types of performance art.  This piece would be an approximation of all those acts meeting backstage and performing again.

Big Daddy, by the way, was an English professional wrestler.  What a sight that must have been.

The Concert

The show kicked off with the Zappa piece.  I had never heard any of Zappa's classical or orchestra efforts, growing up when I did.  I was mostly familiar with his Rock n' Roll parodies and hilariously offensive comedy lyrics.  Dupree's Paradise was described as being from the mind of a composer devoted to breaking sonic barriers, and it does that.  On further listening it has a very heavy progressive rock/fusion bent- well-suited for an orchestral arrangement, in my opinion.  

Big Daddy, Motorhead was just as advertised- we did have a full range of colors and styles through the piece.  I was pleasantly surprised when I head this piece was more like all the performances of Ulster Hall taking place in series, not at the same time.  With Charles Ives on the program, I would not have been surprised to hear the orchestra imitating a heavy metal concert, a wrestling match, a rousing speech, a symphony, and a monster truck rally simultaneously.  

Between stage transitions, we were treated to some audio samples of the work of Zappa and some of the Ulster Hall memories.  There were a good number of young student groups present, so I'm sure they all got a good classic rock education listening to Zappa playing his synclavier and modern-day classical and jazz groups bringing new life to his music.   

The premiere piece was the violin concerto named for the French tapestries.  Another surprisingly tonal piece, but with big splashes of colors and sounds from the excellent soloist and orchestra.  Of the concerto, the composer described the soloist as, "The washing line from which the orchestra can hang all manner of noises and sounds."  With a wonderfully colorful description like that, I was expecting a dream/nightmare of chromaticism, atonality, and John Cage-esque found sounds.  Sadly or happily, it was not to be, and I was again privileged to be present for the world premiere of a new a beautiful piece of music.

Of the Ives piece, Unanswered Question, I have some previous exposure.  Leonard Bernstein famously titled a whole series of lectures at Harvard after this one simple five-minute piece of music, as it offers an interesting dilemma through music.  This piece has three separate voices- a string section, a woodwind quartet, and a solo trumpet.  Today, they physically separated each voice, leaving the strings on stage, moving the woodwinds to the choir balcony, and the trumpet soloist to the box seats.  

In this piece, the strings begin a series of chords in (I believe) G major.  They move slowly, suspending and resolving different chords, but all in very pleasing G tonality.  The trumpet "asks" a six note question, slowly.  After a moment (with the drone of the strings continuing) the woodwinds make an ambiguous and not-very-helpful sounding response.  The trumpet "asks" the same question several times, and the woodwind answer gets louder, longer, and stranger each time.  Clearly the trumpet voice isn't getting the answer she wants.  Finally, the trumpet asks the question one more time, but this time- no answer from the woodwinds.  The strings continue their drone and fade out to nothing.

Sounds really artsy-fartsy, doesn't it?  Yeah, it is.  People assign all sorts of philosophical meaning to this Unanswered Question.  Is it the meaning of life?  Is it the spinning of the universe?  Is it asking God for answers?  Is she ordering a pizza?  No one really knows.  My guess is that Ives would like it that way.

After the fantastic and enigmatic work of Ives, composer Brian Irvine came out for one last bow, and finished the concert in the best way I can imagine, with a double "Rock On!" sign with his first and fourth fingers raised on each hand.  Rock on, indeed, sir.  Thanks for a great concert.

Special Thanks

Composer Brian Irvine
RTE Lyric fm for recording and rebroadcasting the performance.  Follow this link for the recording.

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