Stargrazer – The Comet Encounter at the National Concert Hall | Review
Michael Seal leads the RTE Concert Orchestra in a night celebrating the comet ISON’s close passage to the sun. A large screen hangs over the orchestra, setting this evening apart from the average classical evening in the Hall. The buzz of children mixed into the usual adult crowd adds to the atmosphere, a level of excitement present that only a packed hall of mixed ages can bring.
Little-known Things to Come suite by Arthur Bliss seemed a potential weak-point in the evening, but despite people’s unfamiliarity with the piece it is well received. The audience shows a widespread unfamiliarity with concert etiquette, clapping after the first movement to obvious consternation from Seal and the orchestra. Though applause is somewhat understandable as without a programme, almost every movement seems like it must be the last, finishing with dramatic flourishes as they do. After so many false finishes the final movement, March, manages to stand above the rest in its constant build up. Percussion work hard throughout the suite and out-do themselves here and, along with the brass section, make this movement by far the most memorable.
Seal’s gestures are usually minimal, but his swooping upbeat leads into the jolting opening fanfare of the Star Wars suite. There are some dodgy moments in tuning here but the ensemble is settled by the time the dark majesty of the Imperial March is heard. Again the audience applauds at every break. While one round of applause after a particularly affecting movement is understandable, as the incessant clapping continues throughout the night some tight smiles appear both on and off the stage.
Following the intermission, The Planets – A Multimedia Experience begins. What exactly Andrew Dolph‘s multimedia element would entail remained somewhat of a mystery despite the preview ads. While the CGI planets seemed as realistic as might have been expected in the original ’70s Star Wars, the interaction between screen and music more than made up for this weakness. While usually the addition of visuals to a musical evening leave the conductor confined within very specific tempos, Dolph’s control over the speed of the projections and position within the orchestra meant Seal could be free to move with the music.
This was particularly noticeable in the first movement, Mars, where the latest satellite information was used to create a 3-D journey through the landscape that swept through and over ravines – all in time to the weaving, pounding music. Despite the power of both Mars and Jupiter, it was the unrelenting Saturn that stood out. Lower brass performed beautifully here, again teaming with percussion to quash the woodwind’s interjections and control the stage. The images used for Neptune were stunning and extremely fitting, transitioning smoothly between planetary imaginings and stunning nebulae, always fitting the mood of the music perfectly, fading away into the distance as did the voices of the New Dublin Voices, hidden in the wings.
While unfortunately the comet ISON may not have survived its close encounter with the sun, the night of star worship at the NCH has been a clear success. Although the ensemble would certainly have benefited from more rehearsal time, the beauty in the night’s music is in the extreme power of the orchestra – something the Concert Orchestra is clearly not short of.