West Cork Chamber Music Festival
A view down at the East Front of the house where the concerts took place
The library (where most of the concerts were held) is in the center --the portion with the white background
by Kelly FerjutzCork is a fairly large county in the southern portion of Ireland, loosely divided between East and West. The weather is temperate—almost balmy—year around, with charming sea-side villages but little commerce to help boost the economy. Some years ago, tourism became an essential part of the financial balance, and consequently, reasons for increasing tourism were sought. The Irish love music of almost any kind, so it seemed logical to consider the possibility of music festivals. What happened is a variety of them, devoted to various musical categories: early music, jazz, contemporary and traditional Irish being among the first suggested. They were so successful there are now other varieties, as well.
The West Cork Chamber Music Festival comes pretty close to being all things to all people. They certainly try hard. This year-2007- was the twelfth year for the festival, which has grown by leaps and bounds since the first small effort.
This was my first year to attend the Festival and it made me hope that it won't be my last- I was overwhelmed by the abundance and variety of spectacular music making on offer. The ambiance just can't be beat. Imagine chamber music in a real, honest-to-goodness chamber.
Generally, there were four concerts per day at the main venue--Bantry House--a stately home on the southern edge of Ireland perched midway up a cliff. It is reachable by a picturesque half-mile walk up a winding, tree-festooned walkway from just across the narrow street that edges Bantry Bay, or by car from two other entrances. It's an incredibly beautiful location, and no matter how much you think you like greenery, you've never really seen green until you've seen Ireland.
There are two concert venues in Bantry House. The Coffee Concert--an hour-long recital beginning at noon each day--was held in the Rose Room. This is actually a double room that seats 96 there while the musicians and 34 people were in the other slightly smaller room (where not all seats had good visual lines). The walls of both rooms were festooned with huge tapestries that were made for Marie Antoinette, and one couldn't help but wonder at the music these works of art might have heard throughout their long lifetimes. Fanciful, yes but unavoidable under the circumstances.
The Rose Room faces westward towards the Bantry Bay. Facing East from the other end of the wide hallway is an enormous Library (lengthy, with tall ceilings) with walk-in size fireplace is at either end and where one can gaze at the splendid Italian Gardens. If this room is the top bar of the letter T, then the upright portion of the T would be in the hallway and up a short flight of stairs, where the remainder of the 260 seats were placed. The acoustics were totally superb regardless of where one sat, and for the most part, the artists were visible to everyone in this location.
A small stage was set up in the center of the library, near the huge doors leading out to the gardens. Big enough for a piano quintet, it also served well for solo performers, as well as the one event with said quintet plus two added musicians. This was for a world premiere on the fourth night, Tuesday, July 3. As an added bonus, this was a jazz piece, not the traditional classical music usually heard there: re:play by the well-known Irish composer Ian Wilson. It was written for Cathal Roche, saxophone; Hugh Tinney, piano; Malachy Robinson, double bass, and the very adventuresome RTÉ Vanbrugh String Quartet. Even though this was the quartet's second world premiere in three days, it didn't seem to faze them in the least.
(A note of explanation: RTÉ is the Irish eqivalent of National Public Radio, and, among other musical activities, sponsors this quartet. All the concerts were taped, and will be broadcast during September. They'll also be streamed at http://www.rte.ie/lyricfm/)
re:play is based on Beckett's play and features rhythmic and melodic motifs based on the text. It was fascinating, to put it mildly. It could have easily fit in a jazz club as in a chamber music festival like this. These gentlemen in the quartet are obviously not strangers to each other, and seemed to know by instinct when it would be their turn to 'wing it.' Each of them had their turn in the spotlight, leading or following. At times, it sounded as though three different pieces were being played, all at once. At the end, the happy composer shared bows with the performers.
The other world premiere that featured the Quartet was on Sunday evening, July 1. John Kinsella is another Irish composer of, so far, nine symphonies and five string quartets. His Prelude and Toccata for String Quartet was written for the gentlemen who performed it. The piece began with the quartet playing in unison, so closely together that while seeing the bows moving, you heard only one note. At times, there were lovely harmonies or a few chirps and squawks, but always they returned to the ethereal unison playing. The appreciative composer sat close enough to have reached out and touched any of the musicians had he so wished, again demonstrating the marvelous intimacy of the chamber.
Two world premieres among thirty-five separate concerts is a pretty good ration I think. But, there were also two works by the American John Corigliano, plus songs by Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein. Again once, we heard the RTÉ Vanbrughs, playing Corigliano's String Quartet No 1 from 1995. This performance was on opening night, June 30, on a program with an unaccompanied violin Sonata by Bach marvelously performed by Liza Ferschtman, and a string quartet by Gyorgi Ligeti performed by the Cuarteto Casals.
One could easily believe that the Corigliano picked up where the Ligeti left off forty years earlier, employing some of the same musical qualities: atmospheric segments alternating with full-bodied lyrical sections, and bent notes scattered throughout. Whereas Ligeti had gone country/western with a bit of his music, Corigliano went to the American South and some bluesy lines. Broad notes, played most emphatically in interesting chords, then deconstructed, with each instrument, by turns, playing a small theme at a slightly lower pitch than previously, pulling his companions down to meet this new pitch, which then went to another instrument with the same results. Eventually, however, they all reached the same tonal home, matching perfectly.
The other Corigliano work was his song cycle (completed in 2000) Mr Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. The composer says he didn't listen to Dylan's music when it was new, (neither did I) so he came to the poetry with fresh eyes and ears. He constructed an awesome--if not very lyrical or melodic--song cycle out of the seven lyrics that he selected for his purpose.
This was part of a concert in honor of American Independence Day that featured the charming red-haired Irish lass Mary Hegarty in a program of songs by American composers. Her very able and sensitive collaborator at the piano was Nicole Panizza. Barber's Four Songs, Opus 13 opened the program, and were followed by two brief songs by Bernstein set to exceedingly passionate poems of Rilke.
The Corigliano/Dylan songs, however, brought down the house (figuratively, not literally). Some of them were rather belligerent in nature, but the closing song, Postlude: Forever Young, was sheer beauty as presented by Ms Hegarty, as it is very reminiscent of the famous Irish Blessing: 'may the sun rise up to greet you...' Here, Dylan's words were perfectly matched by Corigliano's most lyrical writing, in a benediction suitable for anyone anywhere.
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