Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Support Your Local Composer (III): Diversus in Tinahely

The worst feeling I can have in a concert of new and unfamiliar music is when I start to think: "Is it supposed to sound like that?" Confidence in the performer(s) is absolutely essential in this regard, and I was very surprised to find myself entertaining the query above at the concert I went to on Saturday night last in Tinahely, a concert of Baroque and new music given by the Diversus Guitar Ensemble. The DGE, formed and led by Brendan Walsh, a graduate of NUI Maynooth and a composer and member of the EAR Ensemble, are a well-regarded and accomplished group of up to 15 guitar players who specialise in new Irish music (more info of Diversus here; more info on EAR here and here).
Writing about this concert presents me with a problem of some delicacy. While on the one hand I am eager to be supportive of new music in Ireland, and the groups who promote it, I am also very reluctant to do so at the expense of proper critical standards. After all, I feel that it is far more insulting to a performer to patronisingly praise them for "having a go" (that ould Irish "ah shure, wasn't it grand?" school of criticism) than to point out where I felt their work was lacking. Because, considering their pedigree (and the price of the tickets) I felt that the group's performance on the night was awkward and at times noticeably clumsy, possessing the authority you would expect from such seasoned performers in fits and starts only (and they have been at it for five years now!). The conductor seemed nervous and ill-at-ease, and it seemed that the group (who all seemed very young) weren't always paying him enough attention. The crux of the problem was that the individual players rarely seemed to gel as a unit and truly inhabit the pieces they were playing (they came close in the last Vivaldi piece and in some of the new pieces). I don't know whether they were having a bad night (for whatever reason) or hadn't rehearsed enough, but I'm sorry to say that, based on this performance, I would be very reluctant to pay as much as I did on this occasion to see them again. And lest you think I’m being overly harsh, I must point out that my partner, a veteran concert-goer who was a regular attendee at the Proms when she lived in London, felt the same way I did. At the very sparse and atmospheric beginning of one piece, a guitar loudly fell over with a clonk, and my partner, who’s a lot more familiar with Baroque music than I am, was not terribly impressed with their interpretations. So I feel that, as I can't vouch for the accuracy of the new pieces they played (James McGuiggan's Music for Guitar Orchestra, Abigail Smith's Little Warm House, David Stalling's Three Movements, and John Wolf Brennan's Immram, all of which were commissioned for this group) I would prefer not to comment on them. I must mention, however, the unusual opening to Brennan's piece. Four of the guys sat cross-legged in front of the conductor, their guitars in their laps with the neck facing away from them. They then dragged fishing line back and forth across the strings, creating a wonderful sawing, almost groaning sound (not a million miles from the drone from the uilleann pipes) while the rest of the group played sparsely in the background. I was disappointed when they stopped and rejoined their seats, as the rest of the performance seemed to head into The Brendan Voyage territory of orchestrated traditional music, something that I found less interesting. If only all fifteen of them had been given some fishing line...
I apologise if this sounds unduly harsh, but I’m judging the group by the standards set by their own press releases. If any members of the group do read this, please let me know if this was just a dud evening, because there were moments when the ensemble did seem to click, and really showed what a group like this could achieve (after all, fifteen guitars played together does create a wonderful noise!). But they were not nearly as many as they should have been.
A note on the composers: James McGuiggan is a member of Diversus itself, and not much else is known about him (at least that’s my conclusion from scouring the internet). He also possesses a mighty afro! David Stalling is a composer and member of the EAR Ensemble, and has a MySpace page here. More information about John Wolf Brennan can be found here, and if you scroll down the page you can see a video of the man himself in action on the piano. Abigail Smith is a singer-songwriter (who often plays with Lioba Petrie, a member of the EAR Ensemble (as is the DGE’s director, Brendan Walsh – dear God, they’re everywhere!)) and was described by the Irish Independent (gag, spit!) as “sounding like Kate Bush’s wacky niece”, a claim that I hope irritates her. Her MySpace page is here, and here’s a sample of her work. You may not like it, but try getting the damn thing out of your head once you've heard it!


Sean Jeating said...

To start with the end: It's at least not the worst voice I've heard, so far.
And to end with the best: A fine benevolent roasting.
As with Mr Parsons: Would be interesting to read reactions.

A Doubtful Egg said...

Thanks Sean. I like the phrase "benevolent roasting"! I just felt that this group were capable of a lot more than what I heard in their concert, and if I could be assured that this performance was an aberration, I would definitely go to see them again.
Re Ms Smith: I think her voice, if used on more experimental fare, could be a very powerful instrument indeed!