Soprano Claudia Boyle’s voice soaring into the stratosphere singing the word “down” as she plunged into the rabbit hole in Irish composer Gerald Barry’s “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” was thrilling but was only one of many highlights of the New Music Dublin 2017 festival.

From Thursday, March 2, through Saturday, Dublin’s National Concert Hall banished the likes of Tchaikovsky and Mozart and brought in the sounds of the 20th century – and beyond. That meant works by Kaija Saariaho, Unsuk Chin, Ondrej Adamek, and Irish composers Linda Buckley and Sean Clancy. But there were also two big composer elephants in the hall.

The festival was held under the auspices of two of the great and good of the contemporary music scene – Barry and his friend Thomas Ades, the British composer of acclaimed operas like “Powder Her Face”, “The Tempest” and, most recently, “The Exterminating Angel”.

The two composers engaged in friendly repartee during a coffee hour on Saturday, with Ades saying he’d been greatly inspired by a piece Barry wrote for television in the early 1990s – “what amazed me was why anybody had gone to so much trouble artistically for something on the television.”

Barry, whose mini-opera prior to the manic, 50-minute-long “Alice” was a reduction of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”, said he doesn’t like humour that is too obvious – and singled out the drunken priest Father Jack from the “Father Ted” comedy series as an example. “It has to do with what is obvious and what isn’t obvious and Father Jack, the drunk guy, he’s just an obvious bore… there’s more imagination and subtlety in the other characters.”

Simon Taylor, the concert hall’s CEO, said that when he took over the job in 2011 he thought the hall was not doing enough to present contemporary music – and to build up audiences for it.

“If you think of the time of Mozart everybody wrote like Mozart – they didn’t write as well as Mozart but the language was the same whereas now you come along and you really don’t know what you’re going to hear…I think from my point of view as a promoter, as it were, for the concert hall looking for the audience, that’s a tricky thing,” Taylor told Irish Arts News in an interview.

“You kind of have a feeling that a huge amount of our core audience would’ve really enjoyed that last night,” he added, referring to the Irish premiere of Ades’s “Totentanz” for baritone and mezzo-soprano, conducted by the composer. “But how do you persuade them in advance to come? I think that’s the real challenge.”

One way – but it might put a strain on the budget – might be to offer more free concerts. That’s what persuaded landscaper Andy Kirwan and a friend to spend their Saturday afternoon listening to contemporary pieces played by Crash Ensemble in corridors and upstairs rooms at the NCH.

Kirwan said he’d enjoyed a Saariaho “Nocturne” for solo violin but was a bit perplexed by a piece that combined piccolo and interjected Italian phrases. “I feel like I missed a little of it because I don’t understand Italian,” he said. But as far as he was concerned, the price was right.

“I heard about it on the radio – and it was free.”

(To hear a podcast of the opening of Barry’s opera, from the London premiere with soprano  Barbara Hannigan, plus Barry’s comments about humour and Taylor’s comments click here:

or here:

— By Michael Roddy

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