Moving on Music and the Belfast Music Society prove there is a demand for unfamiliar, challenging classical music in Northern Ireland
There is an assumption – fairly widely held, in my experience – that to get people to attend arts events you have to give them stuff that they are already familiar with and won’t be frightened by, so that they enjoy the evening and are likely to come back again.
‘Accessibility’ is one of the odious buzzwords that that idea flies by, while its antipode, ‘elitism’, is the term reserved to tag events that don’t immediately elicit belly laughs or get the punters humming tunes they’ve heard a hundred times before.
I wish a few of those taggers had been present at The MAC in Belfast for the latest concert in a series entitled ‘Night Music’, a joint initiative between Moving on Music and the Belfast Music Society, two estimable organisations that continue to believe in the curiosity and intelligence of Northern Irish audiences, and strive to cater for it.
The programme on this particular occasion is anything but easy and instantly ‘accessible’ – contemporary classical music by Bartók, Ligeti, Molloy and Dinescu, four names with little box office cachet among the general concert-going population, perhaps, at least two of whom have a reputation for being a ‘difficult’, demanding listen.
It should have been a tough sell, and yet the room on floor six of The MAC is full and extra chairs are slipped in at the rear, beside the lighting rig. Are these people masochists or something?
Listening to cellist David McCann’s comments on Ligeti’s 'Sonata for Solo Cello', you feel they might have to be. It’s a technically fearsome piece, and McCann drolly recounts the five weeks he has just spent learning it as a purgatorial period, and the odd looks he got from other cellists when he mentioned he was playing it.
It is hardly an appetite-whetting introduction, but in the event McCann’s performance is gripping, the weird chordal glissandos of the opening movement euphoniously tuned and balanced, the fierce, spitting declamations of the second movement confidently nailed and articulated.
Pomeroy-born Ryan Molloy similarly pulls no punches technically in his piano work 'Sliabh Geal gCua'. In the pre-concert interview he describes it as ‘no walk in the park’ for the player, betraying a smidgeon of frustration that his background as an Irish traditional musician continues to shape perceptions of his work as a classical composer.
You would, in fact, be hard pressed to identify in the music the traditional tune from which Molloy’s piece takes its title: it’s the ‘phrase-shapes’ of the melody, not the notes themselves, he says, which are his point of reference.
Molloy’s friend, Simon Mawhinney, plays 'Sliabh Geal gCua' with a panoramic appreciation of the piece’s broad vistas, and a particular sensitivity to the moments of near-stasis between the mountainous peaks of sound that Molly builds around them, charting the rugged escarpments of the landscape like an Irish Messiaen.
For Violeta Dinescu’s 'Terra Lonhdana, Fragment V' three further players from the excellent Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble – Aisling Agnew (flute), Sarah Watts (clarinet) and Joanne Quigley (violin) – join McCann and Mawhinney.
There is folk influence here too, as Romanian gypsy rhythms lace the writing, and Dinescu doles out opportunities to each of the players to make solo interjections. Earlier Watts, Quigley and Molloy open the evening with Bartók’s 'Contrasts', its strong Hungarian dance inflections attacked with relish, the clarinet in particular wailing like a tipsy relative at a country wedding.
There has, justifiably, been a lot of doom and gloom recently about the state of the arts in Northern Ireland, and the lamentably stingy attitude to funding them with public money.
Here is a perfect example of why that funding remains urgently necessary – a superbly intelligent, challenging programme, featuring mainly local musicians, in an unconventional, imaginative setting. Will those who planned the concert be able to continue offering Northern Irish audiences other priceless treats like it in the future?