Entertainment Music

Thursday 19 April 2018

Classical: 'Composing the Island': worthy celebration of a century of Irish music

The National Concert Hall in Dublin.
The National Concert Hall in Dublin.

John Field, Michael Balfe, Charles Villiers Stanford - three names plucked at random from a range of Irish composers who made their mark in the field of classical music. Harty and Larchet, Potter and May, Fleischmann and Kelly, and of course Ó Riada, too - strains of Ireland echo right across the ages, and across the past century as well, as is highlighted by a festival that's running this month, jointly promoted by the National Concert Hall and RTÉ with the support of Bord na Móna.

Composing The Island celebrates music in Ireland in the 100 years since 1916. It opened on Wednesday night and continues with daily performances for three full weeks.

Field and Balfe fall outside the scope of the programme, but all the others feature, and in there as well is a man who was a seminal influence on whatever was to become of me in the sphere of music.

Havelock Nelson was born in Cork the year after the Easter Rising and went to Dublin to study both medicine at Trinity and music at the Royal Irish Academy.

He was just 22 when he helped set up the Dublin Orchestral Players, an amateur orchestra that encouraged young talent. But World War II intervened, and medicine took over. He worked as a bacteriologist in Britain's Royal Air Force.

Music became his life when he joined the BBC in Belfast in 1947. He was in charge for 30 years until his retirement.

Havelock's daughter Romilly was in my class at school, and his son Graham was a year or two ahead. That's how I got to know him, and how that seminal influence came about.

I was never going to be a performer like others he encouraged - James Galway, Barry Douglas, and Heather Harper are among those whose careers benefited from his guidance early on - but the infectious enthusiasm he brought to music-making made sure there was joy to be had at whatever level you were engaging.

All the while, he was writing as well - for orchestras, chamber groups, choirs, even incidental music for radio and TV.

It's entirely appropriate that RTÉ Cór na nÓg should be performing the Havelock Nelson piece that features in Composing The Island. 'The Girl with the Buckles on Her Shoes' - a setting of an Irish folk song - is a wonderful example of what he was particularly good at, taking something indigenous and turning it into a stunning vehicle for young voices that they get a great deal of pleasure out of singing.

That particular concert - Voices of the Future - is part of the programme on the final day of the festival, Sunday, September 25.

By the event's conclusion, almost 200 works by some 90 different Irish composers will have been presented - proof positive that the scene here was alive and well right through the formative years of the State and beyond, and is still going strong.

There are orchestral concerts, chamber music, choral events and recitals as well, one of those, at lunchtime on Friday, September 16, by the pianist Michael McHale.

It features world premieres of two works, a piece by the jazz bassist Ronan Guilfoyle and a composition by the Dublin musician Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, whose Ergodos record label recently released Michael's latest CD of four Schubert Impromptus.

Composing the Island is a hugely significant cultural contribution to this centenary year, an ambitious programme offering something for just about every musical taste.

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