Last Friday, the RTE National Symphony Orchestra opened their new season at the National Concert Hall with an evening that encapsulates what we can expect in the months to come. Led by the new principal guest conductor of the season, Nathalie Stutzmann, the orchestra presented a programme that, though by no means ground-breaking, managed to both provide a fresh, exciting performance while remaining conservative and canonical enough for those who might automatically shy away from anything too “avant-garde”.
Of course, this in itself represents a question that one might ask when considering national institutions such as the NSO and NCH. Should they be providing state-supported spaces for new, innovative art to both emerge and be presented, or rather continue to nurture a seemingly waning public interest in art music? The NCH, as a musical venue, has made laudable efforts to keep programming varied and accessible. Although the novelty of the concert hall’s grandeur may still yet to have worn off for this writer (in fact, it remains a large part of the appeal), there is something here for everyone in the upcoming season, regardless of taste; from Martin Hayes to the Tallis Scholars, Vertigo to Disco Inferno, the Hall proves once again that it can, and will, cater for all.
And even though the NSO may be a little bit on the more conservative end of the musical spectrum, last Friday’s crowd was a mixed one, with faces both young and old. The evening’s programme, consisting of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, is generally classical in flavour with a forward thinking twist—much as you could describe the NSO, in fact. The Brahms, performed impeccably by Veronika Eberle, is a paean of Romanticism, and an unusually long piece to choose to open. Eberle’s heroic and virtuosic battle with the orchestra, however, certainly kept the audience attentive, and she was met afterwards with the typical, nearly embarrassingly rapturous applause of a classical music audience. After an interval, we were brought back to the shadow that loomed over Brahms, Beethoven himself. His first symphony is by no means a ground-breaking piece, but it toys with the language of the classical period, and its tonal surprises add to the general sense of playfulness of the piece. Finally, Prokofiev’s tightly compact (at an extraordinarily short fifteen minutes) yet highly enjoyable ‘Classical’ symphony rounded off the show. Prokofiev’s twentieth-century piece gestures and nearly parodies the works of Haydn, but, for me at least, was possibly the biggest surprise and success of the evening, closing with a thoroughly enjoyable bang.
Looking forward to the weeks ahead, it seems that the NSO will provide similar fare for most of their Friday performances; a repertoire that is essentially canonical, but not necessarily staid or dull, and with hidden gems tucked into each programme. The NSO, working in conjunction with Lyric FM, seem to be seeking more to reach out to a larger audience than necessarily push any major boundaries. This does not seem to be the space for contemporary composers to present their work (unless you’re Gerald Barry or Raymond Dean, that is.) This is largely reflective of the current state of art music, however; the fact, even, that I found Prokofiev’s 100-year-old parody of a 300-year-old style ‘refreshing’ in this context is in itself admittedly ridiculous.
The NSO performs every Friday evening at 7.30pm and is broadcast over Lyric FM at the same time. For those looking for some cultural edification, programme notes can be bought for €5 at the venue, and some commentary is provided by the presenter at the outset of the concert. Personally, however, I would advocate just going along and enjoying the music. And, having saved the best until last—every Friday student standby tickets are sold for a mere €5. It may not be exactly boundary pushing, but when it’s cheaper than a burrito, there’s no real reason not to go.