Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin at The National Concert Hall, 8 September 2017

We welcome back the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra for the first concert of the new season. Tonight’s programme is a celebration of the music of composer and pianist, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. Proceedings begin with Templum, a piece for soprano saxophone and orchestra. Saxophonist Kenneth Edge has a beautiful tone and the piece showcases his dynamic range – from the quietest whispers to rushing passages of notes above the orchestral accompaniment.

Ó Súilleabháin speaks between pieces throughout the evening, both in English and fluent Irish. Having done so much to further the conversation around Irish traditional music, Ó Súilleabháin’s music is a synthesis of the various musical traditions he has grown up with. He introduces the second piece, Flowan, with reference to Seamus Heaney’s ‘Station Island’ poems “about finding your own voice”. Flowan was written to soundtrack a dramatic sequence in the 1926 silent film ‘Irish Destiny’, the hero Dennis rescuing Moira on horseback. The solo piano part insistently gallops and, Ó Súilleabháin jokes, “as you can hear from the music, Moira did get rescued”.

As Head of Music at the University of Limerick (where he founded the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance), Ó Súilleabháin nurtured and encouraged younger generations of musicians for over twenty years, and so it is fitting that uillean piper Pádraic Keane makes his debut with the NSO to play Termon. Keane performed this piece on tour in America with the Irish Chamber Orchestra in the wake of receiving the TG4 Young Musician of the Year award in 2011. The musical language is similar to that of Templum, with the solo instrument standing proud against the rich orchestral accompaniment. The composer remarks that he tried playing the pipes, but found the instrument too much “like an octopus” to make any headway.

So Merrily Dance offers the first real opportunity to witness the light fingerwork that Ó Súilleabháin is renowned for through his interpretations of traditional music. This is a joyous, brilliant performance.

Iarla Ó Lionáird’s performances bring another level of meaning and immediacy to the evening’s programme. Port na bPúcaí and, later, An Buachaill Caol Dubh, are miniature tone poems (Ó Súilleabháin renders this into Irish as “ceol dán”) based on songs from the singer’s repertoire. The orchestration in these works is very effective, in particular the soft, dense brass textures and intense woodwind writing in Port nu bPúcaí.

The final piece sees Mel Mercier, Ó Súilleabháin’s long-time collaborator, take the stage for their co-composition (must be more) Crispy. His playing of the bones is mesmerising – seated, his eyes closed, his body swaying and bobbing as he dances the intricate rhythms with his right hand, the left suspended gracefully in mid-air. The piece is based on snappy Indian rhythms, filtered through the languages of Irish traditional music and classical harmony. Its emphatic, rising first theme and dancing, sequentially falling second theme jostle playfully throughout and give a rousing finale to this wonderful concert.