Irish Baroque Orchestra at Whyte Recital Hall, RIAM, Dublin, on 9 September 2023

Dublin’s newest music venue – the Whyte Recital Hall – opened earlier this week, and there is plenty of buzz about it. For Dublin, it is that rare thing: an actual purpose-built concert hall. Also, as tonight’s conductor Peter Whelan points out at the start, many of the orchestra’s players, himself included, cut their performing teeth in the former Dagg Hall, very near to where this new space is situated in the reconfigured Royal Irish Academy of Music, so it is exciting to find oneself here – with its elegant curves, comfortable seating, and dark wooden surfaces. Tonight it plays host to its first orchestral concert, with the Irish Baroque Orchestra performing music by Josef Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Whelan, normally seen directing from the harpsichord, is now free to simply conduct, which he does with light, impressionistic gestures, imbued with his characteristic energy. The first work, Haydn’s Symphony No. 82 in C, opens with immediacy and brightness, the tone sharp and clear – but perhaps too clear? At first, the intensity of the sound seems forceful, even brittle, while the approach to tempo seems a little too fixed, making one wish for a smoother sense of ensemble and more give-and-take in dynamic and pulse. The third-movement minuet-and-trio also risks being slightly heavy for a courtly dance, but then something happens in the finale.

This last movement, with its bagpipe-like drone effects, was called ‘Dance of the Bears’ in an 1829 piano arrangement (resulting in the symphony’s nickname, ‘The Bear’), and this striking moment clearly captures the players’ imaginations. A brilliant set-piece, the music becomes a blazing riot of colour, spin, and verve, with smart contrasts in scale and texture. Whelan resists making a meal out of the movement’s many false endings (another playful aspect of this work), drawing it instead to an emphatic close.

The music of Mozart follows, and there is much to enjoy in the youthful Oboe Concerto, K.314. Soloist Andreas Helm, a permanent member of the orchestra, gives an immaculate performance of this testing work. Balance between soloist and ensemble is well-judged, as the sweet and straight tone of the solo instrument builds over the dancing rhythms in the ensemble. Helm’s playing is a pleasure to hear, his tone smooth and touching, with gentle ornaments and a beautiful depth of sound in the two cadenzas. The slow movement has an almost aria-like expressiveness, while the finale is crisp and clean.

The big showpiece is saved to the end, with Mozart’s extraordinary Symphony No. 41 in C, K.551 (the ‘Jupiter’). After its intentionally abrupt opening, the growing string and woodwind textures make for a richly cohesive network of layers, with fine details along the way. The effect of this becomes even greater in the slow movement, hypnotically magical in its interplay between the different colours of the ensemble, with fine playing across the different sections. The complex brilliance of the finale is a thing of wonder, sweeping all before it.

It is possible that – for both the orchestra and the acoustic design of the hall – we are witnessing a work-in-progress, and one no less welcome for that. We can only hope that in the months and years to come there will be more such encounters in this space of possibilities.

Josef Haydn: Symphony No. 82 in C, ‘The Bear’
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Oboe Concerto, K.314; Symphony No. 41 in C, K.551, ‘Jupiter’
Irish Baroque Orchestra, Andreas Helm (oboe), Peter Whelan (conductor)

Images by Pawel Bebenca (above) and Alison Byrne (below)