Breakdown at the National Concert Hall, 20 January 2015.
Opening a year of events to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, this concert showcases many sides of the conservatory’s output. The Grand Symphony for a Full Orchestra (1816) by Frenchman Paul Alday reflects the work of academic researchers, while the major work – sung entirely by students and recent graduates – is the premiere of the opera Breakdown (as a concert performance, unstaged) by doctoral candidate Andrew Synnott.
One of the first symphonies composed in Ireland, the complete score of Alday’s Grand Symphony was only recently unearthed by a DIT musicologist researching the National Library’s uncatalogued music collection. Despite this direct involvement by academic staff, the symphony receives surprisingly minimal description in the programme, apart from a brief note describing the mere fact of its recovery. Anyone wondering who Paul Alday was and why he was in Dublin in 1816 is left none the wiser. The work that emerges is a conventional but perfectly competent and attractive work of its time, inevitably reflecting the influences of the great Classical masters as well as perhaps hinting at the colourful world of Parisian opéra-comique. The workmanlike performance by the DIT Symphony Orchestra conducted by Keith Pascoe is effective enough, though occasional rocky moments suggest that it could have benefited from a little more rehearsal.
No such problems hinder the ensemble’s performance of Synnott’s Breakdown, however, which is sensitively conducted by the work’s composer. The score is full of colour and interest, and Synnott’s experience as an opera conductor (on top of his compositional talent) shines through in its balanced and varied orchestration. If at times the density of the writing threatened to drown out the singers it was as much due to the presence of the orchestra up on stage behind the singers – always a problem with concert performances – as well as the youth of the voices themselves. Among the extensive cast, the strongest performances are given by Jonathan Raman (Michael Landy) and, in particular, Chloe Morgan (Marina Abramovic), who expressively projects her role with serene passion and focus.
For this opera, librettist John Breen (best-known for his rugby-play Alone it Stands) takes performance art – that most intense form of contemporary art – as his subject. Opera and performance art are not unknown to each other, but anyone expecting something to compare with the anti-formalist experiments of a half-century ago will be disappointed. Speaking beforehand, Breen suggests that the opera is about “the psychology of performance artists”. According to the stage directions, three chosen art-works would be simultaneously staged in separate zones as specimens, and the artists themselves (Michael Landy, Marina Abramovic, and Barry Le Va, with Joseph Beuys as a bonus extra), along with contemporary audiences and hangers-on, are sung by members of the cast. Performance artists distance their work from theatre (to quote the real Abramovic: “theatre is fake”), but Breen appears to see no contradiction in the idea of representing such work on stage. As the character of Barry Le Va is mocked in the third act, one can only wonder – what homage is this?
Putting those concerns to one side, however, the opera approaches the notion of extreme performance with a mixture of humour and pity, and creates a variety of touching situations for the composer. Synnott’s music responds with great beauty, as if offering comfort, and at the end wins a standing ovation.
Paul Alday: Grand Symphony for a Full Orchestra (1816)
Andrew Synnott: Breakdown
Soloists from DIT MMus class (past and present); DIT Symphony Orchestra conducted by Keith Pascoe and Andrew Synnott