Chamber music instrumental to city’s vibrancy

Great Music in Irish Houses fills a gap in the capital’s cultural life, writes Alan O’Riordan.

Chamber music instrumental to city’s vibrancy

IRELAND’S leading festival of chamber music was for four decades known as Music in Great Irish Houses. It has restyled itself as KBC Great Music in Irish Houses. So, is the music better? Are the locations less grand? It’s a combination of the two.

The festival still includes Kilruddery House in Bray; and Castletown House, Co Kildare, Ireland’s finest Palladian building; but now also the Waterways Ireland visitor centre (or Box on the Docks) at Grand Canal Dock, Dublin, and the botanic gardens in Glasnevin.

So, the type of venue has broadened, but the geographical spread has shrunken: the festival is now largely in Dublin. Yet, it still invites us to ponder the nexus between music and where it is played, to consider the origins of chamber music and how it fitted into the life and the story of a city.

This is a largely forgotten history, a discontinued tradition. “I do think there is a dearth of chamber music played in Dublin,” says Ciara Higgins, the festival’s artistic director, as we sit in cafe not far from her place of work, the Royal Irish Academy of Music. “It’s a scary statement for a capital city, because I think you fall into one camp or the other — orchestral or chamber — and I definitely fall into the chamber camp. I call myself a chamber music nerd. But there is very little string-quartet performance in Dublin.”

Higgins cites the excellent Vanbrugh Quartet, who occasionally visit Dublin, and whose Cork residency is an example of the greater vibrancy of musical performance across the country. But what exercises her most is the lack of opportunity to see the world’s leading chamber music ensembles in the city. There have been only two high-profile visits this year.

“There is a need for what we do in the city,” she says. Among the international acts at the festival this year are the Heath Quartet (who will be playing Beethoven’s string quartets in Kilkenny later this summer), and Spain’s Cuarteto Casals, who will be playing Mozart and Brahms in the Botanic Gardens. The young Apollon Musagete Quartet returns to play Castletown House.

“I love the idea of sitting in Castletown,” says Higgins, “listening to a string quartet and knowing that, 150 years or more ago, it’s possible that this music was played for the first time in Ireland by another quartet. I love that these spaces were what musicians at that time would have been used to playing. I love the juxtaposition between modern life and the purity of the music.”

A sustained consideration of what Higgins describes is offered to audiences via the festival’s Dublin Musical Saunter, on June 15 — a day-long series of concerts across the city that speaks of its rich tradition in chamber music.

The idea came about when Higgins was talking to flute player William Dowdall about 18th-century musical scores, which had been composed for performance in Dublin Castle.

“He was wondering if there would be somewhere he could play it in Dublin, and I thought ‘This is so obvious for the festival’. In the same week, Annette Cleary, the cellist, came to me about some music by Geminiani, saying she’d love to play it somewhere. I thought, ‘I’ve got the germ of an idea here’. I started to think about how we could explore it,” Higgins says.

Geminiani was Francesco Geminiani, an Italian composer and violinist. Born in 1687, he was a student of the great Alessandro Scarlatti, and opened a music hall off Dame Street in 1734. Geminiani was said to be the finest Italian musician to have visited the country. He died in Dublin in 1762. His work will begin the saunter at the Little Museum of Dublin, which is fittingly located in a Georgian terrace overlooking Stephen’s Green.

The works of Geminiani’s pupil, Matthew Duborg, will also be performed. His life story reads like an 18th-century picaresque. The illegitimate son of a court dancing master, he was a child prodigy who rose to be chief composer and master of state music in Ireland. The saunter will be a good opportunity to get to know colourful and unjustly neglected characters, and the venues that shaped their careers.

From the Little Museum, things move to the Hugh Lane Gallery, named after the Cork-born collector who died on the Lusitania.

There, the programme will feature work by Arnold Bax, whose fascination with Ireland grew out of an interest in the work of poet WB Yeats. Bax was particularly taken by West Cork and Donegal, to which he returned frequently. He died in the house of Aloys Fleischmann in Cork in 1953.

The Liffey is crossed again for the west end of Temple Bar, a part of Dublin forever associated with George Frideric Handel, and Smock Alley. The theatre opened in 1662 and was a central venue in Dublin musical life. There, Michael Balfe’s ‘I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls’ will be performed, as well as Thomas Moore’s ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, two songs that speak to the popular opera traditions of Dublin in the 1800s.

The Smock Alley programme reaches across centuries, to include Bryan Boydell’s tribute to Turlough O’Carolan. The blind harpist himself then features, as well as a selection from Benjamin Britten’s ‘Irish Melodies’.

A series of Dublin Castle concerts completes the day. You can almost feel how a new view of Dublin could take hold, the day before the city saunters to a different beat. On Bloomsday, June 16, Dublin will be busy burnishing its literary credentials.

But it’s almost as if a whole other seam of the city’s cultural history is awaiting rediscovery. A rich musical history that preceded, yet has been clouded by, a literary heritage. This is doubly ironic, since Ulysses itself treats Dublin as a musical, not a literary, town.

“It was such a centre for music,” says Higgins. “The second, after London, in the British Isles. There were over 40 music-publishing houses on Dame Street. So it would be really interesting to do more research into all the spaces that might have been there.”

* KBC Great Music in Irish Houses runs from today until Sunday.

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