This year’s New Music Dublin, curated by British composer/conductor/pianist Thomas Adès, brings a feast of contemporary music to the National Concert Hall, featuring, among others, music by Gerald Barry and Adès himself (including a standout performance of Adès’ Totentanz by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra on Friday night). We caught up with the festival on Saturday 4th March.

The RTÉ Contempo Quartet takes the lunchtime slot with three widely contrasting items. Seán Clancy’s new piece for string quartet, Four Lines of Music Slow Down and Eventually Stop, (commissioned by RTÉ) gets its first performance today. As Clancy explains at the start, this is an egalitarian exercise in writing equally for four instruments, maintaining momentum until the material finally fragments and falls away. The work that emerges is coolly abstract, its steady undulations evoking minimalism, before the texture breaks up to create a dynamic field of sonic interplay. The Contempo players vividly bring out its patterns and textures.

After these rhythmic obsessions, the smooth and long lines of Linda Buckley’s Haza (for string quartet and electronics) usher in an impressionistic, dream-like ambience. Originally commissioned as part of the Contempo’s recent Bartók Project, the Hungarian title (meaning ‘homeland’) refers to an imagined return to Hungary that Béla Bartók never made. Sure enough, the final part of the work frees itself from its long-breathed organicism to break into an obsessive folk-like dance, which the players embrace with gusto, bringing the piece to a close in a dashing whirl of energy.

The concert steps up a gear with the Piano Quintet by Thomas Adès, for which pianist Hugh Tinney joins the string players. There is a Brahmsian grit and sweep to this music which is breath-taking, with a sense of detail and intelligence that makes one want to listen more, and more closely. Structured out of a sequence of inter-connected events, it mixes the visceral and the gentle, with moments of a chorale-like sprung melody evoking an intimate poetic landscape, before its lyrical gestures extend into a full-blooded roar. The ensemble plays beautifully together, with Tinney’s calm and disciplined approach supporting a richly suggestive work.

Programme 1:

Seán Clancy: Four Lines of Music Slow Down and Eventually Stop

Linda Buckley: Haza

Thomas Adès: Piano Quintet

RTÉ Contempo Quartet, with Hugh Tinney (piano)


Saturday evening brings the highpoint of the festival, with the Irish premiere of Gerald Barry’s new opera Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (in concert performance), less than four months after its world premiere in Los Angeles. The broad and aggressively absurdist comedy that characterises his previous opera The Importance of Being Earnest (staged here in 2013 by Wide Open Opera and NI Opera – could anyone forget the plate-smashing scene?) is if anything taken even further. For a narrative that turns on telescopic physical transformations, appropriately perhaps this work telescopes the action of both ‘Alice in Wonderland’ novels down to a single musical movement of less than 50 minutes.


Thomas Adès

Barry’s musical high-jinks come thick and fast. At the start Claudia Boyle’s Alice is imagined toppling down through the rabbit-hole, singing arpeggiated leaps that rise to stratospheric heights, like warm-up exercises that go completely out of hand and off into a spectacular new dimension. As the work carries on, the Duchess’ croquet match is illustrated with screamed instructions on piano technique, the Song of the Jabberwocky is sung (in Russian, French, and finally German) to the tune of ‘A Long Way to Tipperary’, and Humpty Dumpty (bass Joshua Bloom) booms out his simple song to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. There are other musical quotes as well, including a possible rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, along with hints of John Adams and more besides.

At times the singers have to deliver their lines in rapid-fire rhythmic speech, while the projected surtitles necessarily include stage directions, helpfully explaining pauses and gestures. The overall effect is intense and deeply-mechanised, the music’s metrical precision like a brilliant and well-oiled laughter machine, feverishly pushing all before it. At times the voices are drowned completely by the hefty orchestration (with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra brass players on top form tonight). Lewis Carroll’s tests of logic and nonsense provide the spur to the opera’s endless fun and games and helter-skelter pacing, though this perhaps leaves little time for the curious charm of the original novels.

As yet un-staged, the opera’s fast pace would defy any conventional stage design, and perhaps it will remain as a work only for concert performance, but who knows? In the final section’s dark humour, as Boyle turns to strangle Clare Presland (as the Red Queen), the singers finally enter into the kind of physical contact that this drama demands. Emphatically played and sung, with clear and energetic direction from conductor Thomas Adès, Alice rapidly spins, teases and defies logic to the very end. As the world turns upside down, maybe this is the medicine we need.


Programme 2:

Gerald Barry: Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (after Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; librettist uncredited)

Claudia Boyle (Alice); Clare Presland (Duchess, Queen of Hearts, Mock Turtle, Red Queen); Hilary Summers (Cook, Dormouse, Mock Turtle, Tiger Lily, White Queen); Daniel Norman (White Rabbit, Frog Footman, Fawn, Mad Hatter, Tweedledum, White King); Peter Tantsits (Fish Footman, March Hare, Tweedledee); Stephen Richardson (Cheshire Cat, White Knight); Joshua Bloom (King of Hearts, Humpty Dumpty, Red Knight); with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Adès