I got to hear the Irish Chamber Orchestra play their New York debut concert at Alice Tully Hall on Monday night, October 31. Despite the Hallowe'en observance, they were in normal concert dress. Their conductor for the occasion was South Africa-born Gerard Korsten. I had never previously heard of this conductor or ensemble, but was there courtesy of Peoples' Symphony Concerts, which offered tickets to their donors, for which I must thank them, because it was an exemplary and sometimes surprising evening of music.
The ICO presented a canny mix of works calculated to show off their strengths and abilities in the core orchestral repertory (Haydn and Beethoven) while adding a dash of Irish novelty (the New York premiere of a piece for bagpipes and string orchestra) and some 20th century spice (Prokofiev).
They opened with Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 96 in D Major, inaccurately nicknamed "The Miracle." Musicologists have confirmed that the chandelier crashing into the audience without killing anybody took place at the first performance of Symphony No. 102, not No. 96. But I still think this is a miraculous piece, on the lighter side from among the so-called "London Symphonies" that Haydn wrote for his two extended stays in the English city. And this piece gave the orchestra a chance to show off one of their major strengths, their solo oboist, Dan Bates, who was given free reign in the "trio" section of the third movement Menuetto to improvise and embellish during the repeated sections. I've never heard this done to such an extent in an orchestral concert, and it was quite entertaining. (Indeed, his second oboe, Matthew Draper, had a big grin on his face, as if to say "bet you haven't heard that before!) This is, of course, entirely authentic, as composers of the era expected performers to embellish repeats and not to play them verbatim.
Korsten led a very lively performance, and it was great to hear this symphony. Our symphony orchestras do play Haydn occasionally, but surprisingly the tendency these days is to avoid the last twelve symphonies and resuscitate the earlier ones that were neglected before the invention of the long-playing record led to their revival in the search for expanded repertory that began after World War II. Nowadays one is more likely to hear a performance of one of the symphonies Haydn wrote at Esterhaz while he was establishing his European reputation in the 1770s and 1780s. We should never forget that the last twelve symphonies are absolutely the best of Haydn, coming after Haydn had his extended exposure to the younger Mozart (who sadly predeceased him) and derived great inspiration from the younger genius.
Next came a real treat, the great Leon Fleisher performing Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 4 in Bb, Op. 53, for piano (left hand). This was one of the numerous works commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the philosopher Ludwig), a concert pianist whose right arm was lost during military service in World War I, but Wittgenstein never played the piece, claiming that he didn't understand it. Considering some of the other works he commissioned and played, this is risible, as it is a very listener-friendly work, tuneful and rhythmically alive, and featuring an andante movement with the most wonderfully eerie sounds from the strings. (Indeed, appropriate for Hallowe'en ghosties and goblins.) Fleisher, one of those fiery young virtuosi of the 1950s who lost the use of his right hand to a neurological disorder and only resumed two-handed performance within the past decade or so, made a specialty of this piece, and I've heard him in it with other orchestras at least twice. Everything was ship-shape for this performance, with an excellent balance between the small but rich-sounding orchestra and the left hand of the piano. It was amazing to watch the feats of pianistic athleticism, and one might close one's eyes and not realize that everything was being played with the left hand.
After intermission came our Irish novelty, TERMON (on the 10th anniversary of 9/11) for Uillean Pipes and String Orchestra, by Micheal O Suilleabhain (please forgive the omission of accent marks – it's too much of a chore with this keyboard….) The composer explained in the program book that Termon is "the Greek god whose name appears in Latin as Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries." He explained further, "The composition Termon invokes the sacred space of boundaries and thresholds. It seeks to facilitate a listening at the borders of difference, and to reach towards a shared sanctuary of sound." Whatever….
I found it quite moving, as the pipes played a moderately swiftly flowing lyrical line over shifting chords in the strings. Korsten did not conduct this. Instead, the very youthful Padraic Keane sat on a chair on the conductor's podium, facing the audience, strapped into his Uileann Pipes. The otherwise helpful program notes provided no explanation about this instrument, which appeared to be a sort of a bagpipe that the performer powered by compressing a small bellows strapped to his arm, while using his fingers to alter the pitch by covering and uncovering holes on the pipe or depressing levers on the body of the instrument. The result was a clear, reedy sound that seemed gentler than what one hears with the blustery outdoors bagpipes. The string section maintained effective eye contact, taking their cues from the Leader (first chair of the first violins), Katherine Hunka. Their chordal passages provided a nicely-cushioned backdrop to the solo line on the pipes. Many of the harmonies seemed to me reminiscent of Vaughan Williams in pastoral mode, but never as rhythmically "regular" as VW in, say, the 3rd or 5th symphonies. It certainly made me eager to hear more of this composer's music. Mr. Keane received a clamorous ovation, well deserved, and seemed quite diffident in accepting the plaudits. I was surprised he didn't play a little solo encore, but perhaps that's just not done with this group.
Finally, Beethoven's 7th Symphony. The string body was a bit small for this symphony (eleven violins total, four violas, four celli, and two double bases), but they made a very full, rich, and occasionally quite loud sound in the big moments. Alice Tully Hall is just the right size for this kind of ensemble to make a good impact. Once again, woodwinds shown brightly, Mr. Bates doing an excellent job with the oboe solo passages, but the real star in this piece being Fiona Kelly, principal flute, ably partnered with principal clarinet Katherine Spencer and principal bassoon Sarah Burnett. Trumpets and horns were also exemplary. My only real complaints about this performance were two: I thought Adam Dennis was a bit too reticent with the timpani part, but this could have been conductor Korsten's preference, or attributable to the rather small timpani he was working with. (A reduced-size touring set??) I just wanted more sound from the tympani. My other complaint is that, like many performances of the 7th I've heard lately either in concert or on records, the finale was just too fast. I know it is marked Allegro con brio, and it is clear that these musicians could play it cleanly at the super-fast tempo they took (and maybe, a point I haven't checked, this is the tempo indicated by the deaf composer's metronome marking), but I think the music loses some of its impact when it rushes by so quickly. (Carlos Kleiber's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, which I think sets a standard for this work among recordings of the analogue stereo era, managed to achieve extraordinary excitement at a slightly slower pace.) The string section was achieving miracles of virtuosity, to be sure, although the placement of first and second violins together to the left of the podium meant sacrificing some of the effect of motifs tossed back and forth towards the end of the movement. The finale of the 7th has become a sort of "anything you can play I can play faster" sort of competition, and I don't think that presents the best case for the music.
That being said, the finale played at this speed — if well executed — can't fail to generate extraordinary audience enthusiasm, which it did on this occasion. A standing ovation that was actually earned! And the Irish Chamber Orchestra and Gerard Korsten set off on the balance of their American tour – good luck!