RTÉ Concert Orchestra and the Crash Ensemble at National Concert Hall, 23 April 2023

Running ‘as normal’ this year (for a change), New Music Dublin 2023 ends with two concerts which raise questions about music and its relationship to the wider world, to differing effect. There are ideas of music and environment here, as well as the question of how to imagine different forms – and possibilities – of music. Thankfully, the experience is nowhere as dry as that sounds.

The RTÉ Concert Orchestra opens its programme with Brett Dean’s ‘Testament’. First composed in 2002 for an ensemble of 12 violas, we hear the version for full orchestra developed six years later. It recalls Beethoven’s confessional Heiligenstadt Testament (1802), written as the composer faced into his impending deafness. Dean’s work places the intensity of that moment literally into the hands of the string players, as they open the piece playing with un-rosined bows, requiring more effort to play and creating a muffled, unfocused sound. Engagement with the music – for both players and listeners – is hampered. Aiming to suggest the anxious scratching of quill on parchment, combined with traces of half-known melodies, the piece takes on an almost environmental feel, evoking sensations of loss and separation. Receiving committed playing from the Concert Orchestra, the effect is both raw and cohesive.

From this, the orchestra presents the world premiere of ‘Antarctica calling… listen…’ by composer and field-recording artist Karen Power. A static, multimedia work, it combines field recordings from the Antarctic ice, still images by John Godfrey, and a richly atmospheric score played by the ensemble. The colours and chordal textures of the live music make a strong match for the recorded and visual material, while resisting any descriptive associations of film-music. Instead, the live material reinforces the opacity of the scenes presented and played – we are not given an easy way in, or out. Bleak images reveal Antarctica as a continent in transition, its ice melting and its rocks darkly revealed to view, possibly suggesting the invisible and implicit effects of climate change, heard as a gentle trickle.

The concert finishes with the Piano Concerto No. 4b (2016/2023) by Kevin Volans. In revising his fourth piano concerto, Volans seems to be evoking the revisionism of Franz Liszt, a composer fond of creating multiple versions of the same piece, and whose work Volans has himself recorded. The physical piano – played brilliantly by Isabelle O’Connell – is supplemented by five MIDI pianos, the sounds of which play across the hall, with speakers located around the auditorium. These additional ‘pianos’ transform the space, diffracting the sound like a prism or an unreliable echo, and turn the hall itself into an instrument. The orchestral detail bristles with intensity, a constantly unfolding process of rocking textures and complex rhythms. Through all of this, O’Connell’s playing is clear and incisive, showing superb control and fluency.


Moving up from the Main Hall to the Studio, the Crash Ensemble is already playing Andrew Hamilton’s ‘Friendly Piece’ as the audience takes its place. There is a large gathering of flowers at the front of the stage, like a super-size version of the flower offerings placed at or  near temples in parts of Asia. The ‘Friendly Piece’ is a constant, obsessive, but also gentle process – in contrast to the more aggressive energies of earlier Hamilton pieces like ‘music for people who like art’. There are no hard edges, everything is soft and feathery, as if one were engaged with entertaining a particularly docile cat. Repeated phrases, like meditative affirmations, are sung in half-voice (and simultaneously played on violin), mostly by Hamilton himself. Barely audible, they are easily misheard (‘living beings’ consistently comes across as ‘living beans’), but this clearly doesn’t matter.

Lacking a beginning, one can’t help wondering how it will end – perhaps as an inverse of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony, with the house lights brought up, and the audience invited to leave while the playing carries on? That could never work, of course – someone will always stay – and so instead we are treated to an ending, the music growing in intensity towards the close. Despite suggestions of indeterminacy there are many points of detail, like precisely-edited sampling performed live, and the Crash Ensemble proves, as ever, a constant and thoughtful sonic springboard to the material. While encouraging a trance-like state, this music is insistent, and grounded, and benefits from the subtle shifts in lighting along the way, even smoke, as choreographer Emma Martin’s theatrical imagination offers directions of its own. The ‘Friendly Piece’, receiving its world premiere, leaves the audience in raptures, with friends aplenty here tonight, but it will be interesting to see how this piece lives on in different spaces.

Brett Dean: Testament
Karen Power: … Antarctica calling… listen…
Kevin Volans: Piano Concerto No. 4b
RTÉ Concert Orchestra; Gavin Moloney (conductor); Isabelle O’Connell (piano)

Andrew Hamilton: Friendly Piece
Crash Ensemble; Ryan McAdams (conductor); Andrew Hamilton (violin/voice)

Photography by Molly Keane