Night Music

An innovative presentation of classical music at The MAC proves popular

At the tables glasses are clinking, there is a buzz of conversation, and plates of tapas are being circulated. It could be a wine bar somewhere in Belfast, but it’s actually The Factory space on the sixth floor of the MAC, transformed for the second concert in the classical Night Music series, jointly curated by Belfast Music Society and Moving on Music.

The speakeasy-type atmosphere spills over into the music-making. In her realisation of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 'Tierkreis', Dublin-born clarinettist Carol McGonnell takes to heart the avant-garde German composer’s many injunctions in the printed score to move about among the audience, interacting both with them and pianist Finghin Collins.

Entering from a door at the rear, McGonnell pirouettes her way between the chairs and tables, a chirruping Pied Piper transporting the playful figurations of Stockhausen’s little character pieces on signs of the Zodiac from one part of the auditorium to another.

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She toys with Collins too, at one point lying on her back beside the piano, at another peeking mischievously over his shoulder while he plays. Collins, straight-man to McGonnell’s elfin harlequinader, contributes glintingly rhythmic accompaniments, avoiding the unpleasant brittleness that can happen when so much of the writing is concentrated high on the piano.

Movement is deliberately built into 'Tierkreis', but McGonnell is instinctively a kinetic performer, bobbing and weaving her way through Alban Berg’s terse, elliptical 'Four Pieces for clarinet and piano', her instrument arcing choregraphically in the air around her.

All four pieces toy with extremes of dynamic, and there is breath-catching playing from McGonnell in the trance-like netherworld of the concluding movement in particular. Collins is again excellent, eking a strange, haunting poetry from Berg’s angular, fragmentary keyboard writing.

The other two works on the programme are by contemporary Irish composers. Ann Cleare’s 'Eyam I' was written specifically for McGonnell, and to perform it McGonnell switches position yet again, to a music stand located in the centre of the audience.

The work exists in several versions, and on this occasion is played by McGonnell as a solo. You would be forgiven for imagining that there is more than a single clarinet playing, however – the score has frequent passages where air is blown in a variety of ways through the instrument, with no particular pitch sounding.

Other unusual techniques include the layering of two notes one on top of the another, a difficult feat on what is essentially a monodic instrument. The sound of clicking keys and a curious popping effect are also woven into the sonic tapestry, evoking skeletal rattlings from the 17th century Derbyshire plague village referenced in the title, and the mournful sigh of winter winds rattling its windows.

'Eyam I' is undoubtedly evocative, if a little over-extended in its solo format, where the technical effects Cleare uses can seem repetitive. This is no doubt mitigated in the other versions of the piece, which enhance it with electronics and other instruments, and I would like to hear them.

A pre-prepared soundtrack forms the underlay for 'Cantaireacht' by Pomeroy composer Ryan Molloy, currently a lecturer in acoustic composition at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. The raw material Molloy uses is a snippet of ‘Viderunt Omnes’, a choral work by the medieval French composer Pérotin, excerpted and ‘stretched’ electronically in a way that leaves the original pitch of the notes unaffected.

On top of this ‘super slo-mo’ treatment of sampled material, Molloy weaves live commentary from McGonnell’s clarinet to form the ‘chanting’ of the piece’s title – ‘meditative’, as Molloy puts it, taking the listener ‘to another place’.

That is an accurate description, as the combination of processed electronics and live performance creates an interface between the past and present, a sounding-chamber of history with marked Celtic resonances. This particular new work could, I feel, have been arguably even longer without losing interest.

A programme this unfamiliar and challenging would, you might have thought, struggle to find a decent-sized audience. Not a bit of it – The Factory is a sell-out for this outstanding evening of music-making.

It shows that there is a real appetite in Northern Ireland for different approaches to presenting classical music, and in particular for something less constraining than the sober, reverential approach of the typical concert-hall and recital format.

One more Night Music concert remains in this inaugural series, a solo violin recital on April 2 by Ulster Orchestra associate leader Ioana Petcu-Colan, juxtaposing Bach with short works by contemporary composers. It is selling fast already.

Visit The MAC website for information on the next Night Music concert.