Great music fills the chambers of Irish houses

Four new venues and a subtle change of name have allowed this classical festival to broaden its horizons, writes Nicki ffrench Davis

THE KBC Great Music in Irish Houses Festival 2012 opened last night. A subtle name change has seen the ‘Great’ in the festival’s name moved to lend its emphasis to the music. It opens broader possibilities for venues into the future, while great Irish houses remain a key feature.

Since 2007, Ciara Higgins has been artistic director of the festival, which has been running for more than 40 years. “I don’t work with themes for the festival,” Higgins says, “it’s very free programming. This year I guess we have a little less standard repertoire for four of the concerts. The other four concerts are the kind of chamber works that were written for the great salons of Europe just like the kind of houses where they’ll be heard in the festival.

“I have an idea or two going into programming it each year; this year it was Colin Currie’s percussion ensemble who play Steve Reich’s ‘Drumming’ in the closing concert.” The group’s performance of the iconic work caught Higgins’s eye following multiple sell-out concerts across two seasons at the Southbank Centre and the London Proms.

“This will be the Irish premiere of the whole work and I thought I definitely want that,” Higgins says.

Higgins has changed the festival’s structure from eight nights in a row to include mornings and afternoons. The move is already proving popular at the box office. She has also taken sporting factors into account. “The minute the Euro 2012 Irish matches were announced before Christmas I realised it would be arrogant to try and go against them. I thought we could do something more unusual.”

The result is a ‘Musical Salute to Spain and Ireland’, performed by one of the most famous guitarists in the world, Xuefei Yang. It takes place at the Little Museum of Dublin tomorrow at 6pm, finishing in time for audience members to return to their favourite spot to enjoy the match.

Yang had originally approached Higgins with her own transcriptions of Bach which she plays with the Elias Quartet, which can be heard at Castletown House on Saturday afternoon. “Fei is renowned for her performances of Spanish music so that started to spark the idea for this second concert. She will also play fantastic music by Irish composer Benjamin Dwyer, and I know Fei is a fan of the work.”

One of four new festival venues, Rathfarnham Castle, hosted the Irish premiere performance by the Doric Quartet last night. Higgins has high praise for the OPW’s work at Rathfarnham Castle. “They’ve made it into a really friendly place and with a proper restaurant, and it’s an overall experience.”

She is equally enthusiastic about the Smock Alley Theatre, another new venue, which she describes as “incredibly done and something Dublin can be really proud of”. The first phase of restoration of the 17th century theatre was recently completed.

It will host a festival concert that features Messaien’s heart-stopping ‘Quartet for the End of Time’. A piece of music that everyone should experience live at least once, this performance could be exceptional, making subtle use of the theatre’s facilities to explore the colour of Messaien’s music.

The concert brings together New York-based clarinetist Carol McGonnell with three more prominent Irish musicians: violinist Katherine Hunka, cellist Guy Johnson and pianist Finghin Collins. It will include a work by Salvatore Sciarrino, an Italian contemporary composer whose extraordinary textural world sound is gaining a growing Irish following.

McGonnell and Hunka will join accordionist Dermot Dunne for a concert at the Royal College of Surgeons on Friday, having made their début as a trio at the Embassy of Ireland in Paris in 2010 under the auspices of the festival.

“They were fantastic in Paris,” Higgins says. “A relative of Tolstoy who was at the concert said to Dermot, ‘You can’t be Irish, you play accordion like a Russian!’”

Dunne had mentioned to Higgins that he wanted to make an arrangement of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, so she gladly programmed it for this festival concert. “I just trust him. He’s one of the most dynamic and creative musical geniuses around, it’s a concert I’m super excited about,” she says.

Higgins’s greatest enthusiasm is for Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught who performs at Kilruddery House on Saturday.

“Tara is making a huge name for herself in the opera world and this is one of the last times to see her in an intimate venue before she goes stratospheric. The world is going to be at her feet soon and it’s the kind of concert that a lucky audience will still be talking about in ten years’ time.”

* Festival continues to Sunday Jun 17. For more: www.greatmusicinirishhouses.com

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