The Works of Brian Irvine

A Pocket Full of Kryptonite and Montana Strange reviewed by Graeme Stewart

Brian Irvine continues to impress in his new roll as associate composer with the Ulster Orchestra – the first in forty years – with an exhilarating performance of two of his own pieces, A Pocket Full of Kryptonite and Montana Strange, co-conducted with Robert Zeigler at the Whitla Hall in Belfast. 

Throughout the past six years, the Brian Irvine Ensemble have enjoyed international acclaim, performing a number of diverse works by the Northern Irish composer and fusing elements of jazz, improvisation and general surrealism. 

Irvine’s new relationship with the Ulster Orchestra now offers him the chance to delve into a slightly larger toy chest and he takes the opportunity with gusto, blending a variety of contrasting genres. 

Written for the Ulster Orchestra’s 40th anniversary in 2007, A Pocket Full of Kryptonite is perhaps one of Irvine’s more accessible works. Here, he utilizes the ‘Hollywood’ sound with rousing brass and scurrying woodwind passages to create a symphonic superhero. As he says at the beginning of the work, 'Is it a bird, is it a plane?' 

The ensemble itself consists of a diverse range of players and instruments, including electric guitar, synth, saxophones, solo violin and cello, and with Zeigler at the helm, A Pocket Full of Kryptonite takes on a life outside of the written score. Zeigler brings out the rhythmic complexities of the music with great precision and enters whole-heartedly into the evening’s theatrical spirit. Irvine’s music is most certainly crossover, and for me this is where the work’s strength lies. 

The same can be said of Irvine's sonic montage on the films of David Lynch, Montana Strange. Originally commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and first performed in 2006, this work encapsulates the spirit of Lynch’s surrealist landscapes and characters. 

Leading the concerto is world-renowned saxophonist Paul Dunmall, who gives a sterling performance of a work which relies in part on the improvisational skills of its lead player. 

The piece seems like a sonic dream, a phantasm, something which cannot be the same twice, and again Irvine’s sense for the dramatically charged takes over, particularly in the closing stage of the piece, wherein his band become the crazy chickens from Eraserhead. The orchestra’s interaction with the ensemble is fantastic and one never overwhelmed the other. 

In many ways, listening to A Pocket Full of Kryptonite and Montana Strange is like watching two great actors perform, both reaching out to engage with the audience while at the same time engaging with each other to bring out the narrative underbelly of the work. Tonight, the two pieces run around like headless chickens, but with a definite motive for crossing the road.