A special sort of homecoming for Simon Keenlyside

With Jewish roots in Dublin, and having recently signed up for Irish citizenship, celebrated baritone Simon Keenlyside is looking forward to performing for the first time here, writes Cathy Desmond

Simon Keenlyside performs in the National Concert Hall tonight.

ONE of Britain’s most distinguished baritones leads a macabre dance in Dublin. Simon Keenlyside is the baritone soloist in Totentanz, a new work by Thomas Adès which will have its Irish premiere at the National Concert Hall tonight.

A glance through Keenlyside’s biography gives an idea of just how far reaching a career the London born baritone has had. It lists no less than 50 roles performed in major houses all over the world over the last three decades. It is an incredible diversity of characters in his “long time crashing around as a gypsy” as he self-deprecatingly puts it.

He arrives for his first Dublin appearance hotfoot from playing the legendary serial seducer, Don Giovanni for Opera de Bilbao, a role he played at the Met Opera, New York earlier this season.

Totentanz is described by Adès as “an existential battle between life and death”. The British composer has set to music a sequence of 15th century German verses known as the Lübecker Totentanz, originally composed to accompany an artwork created the same year at the Marienkirche in Lübeck.

Sadly, the artwork was destroyed during World War II, but images of it remain, as do the texts, depicting a gleefully macabre grim reaper here played by the baritone interacting with a cavalcade of characters, including a baby, a monk, a maiden and even the Pope, voiced by the soprano.

Adès will be reunited with both soloists who premiered the work with him at the 2013 Proms. Dutch soprano Christianne Stotijn performs the mezzo-soprano role. The singers will be supported by the full might of the RTÉ NSO with up a beefed percussion section including an assortment of instruments that read like the accoutrements of a torture chamber; bamboo canes, ratchets , snake rattles, whips and clappers.

Keenlyside famously created the role of Prospero in Adès opera, The Tempest.

“Having come across Tom almost by chance, I am devoted to him. It doesn’t take genius to recognise genius. The music is stunning. It’s extreme but worth the struggle and I try my hardest to do justice to his incredible score. The play is everything and you are a merely a texture in it. You do as much homework as you can. Then you strap in and go for a ride”

Keenleyside reveals he has fascinating Irish roots. His Russian Jewish forebears were en route from Riga to New York when they were put ashore in Dublin. His grandfather Leonard Hirsch was born in South Great George’s Street in 1902. The 1911 census shows the family of Maurice Hirsch, a draper living in Leeson Street.

His son, Leonard Hirsch went on to be a distinguished figure operating at every level of string playing in Britain, a leader of the Hallé Orchestra and revered teacher of generations of British violinists. He had his first violin lessons in Dublin before the family relocated to Britain.

“I am looking forward to seeing where my grandfather was born. He was very proud of his Irish connection.”

It seems appropriate that Keenlyside comes to perform in Dublin as he has recently taken Irish citizenship as a statement of his European credentials following Brexit.

He prefaced his first appearance in Ireland with a masterclass for six of Ireland’s best young professional singers. He bristles at the term ‘masterclass’. “It’s the wrong word. It is just my turn to give back. My grandfather always said that as long as you are a couple of steps ahead you have something to offer. I’m further down the road and I am just sharing with my next group of colleagues.”

Simon Keenlyside performs in Totentanz at the NCH tonight as part of New Music Dublin


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