The River Still Sings

Despite the best efforts of the Fidelio Trio, this multi-media City of Culture production fails to inspire

You don’t often see three flatscreen televisions at a classical concert. But there they are on a small platform, perched above the instruments and music stands below them, a hi-tech triptych wired to laptops controlled by three operators jabbing on their keyboards stage-left at floor level.

So far, so 21st century. But we have to wait until after the interval to discover what the fancy gadgetry is there for. Part one of this Walled City Music Festival concert in the Great Hall of Magee Campus in Derry~Londonderry kicks off with two works for conventional piano trio.

The first takes fragments of the music written by Mancunian composer Nigel Osborne for his 2004 opera The Piano Tuner, re-shaping them in a succession of episodes for piano, violin and cello. It’s a recipe for bittiness, but Osborne is a resourceful and vastly experienced composer, and, as a consequence, the sequence is rivetting, moving from raw expressivity to the gliding harmonics and pearl drop piano inlays of the penultimate ‘Song of Loss’ section.

The Fidelio Trio (Darragh Morgan on violin, Robin Michael on cello, and Mary Dullea Piano on piano) specialise in contemporary music, and have recorded the Osborne piece for the Delphian label. It shows: their performance is rich in incisive detail, expertly paced, and charged with insight and commitment.

Fidelio Trio

 

Skipping back a century, they seem no less at home in the broader, more effulgent canvas of Ravel’s 'Piano Trio', completed in 1914 before the composer enlisted as an ancillary helper in the French war effort. It’s a work that encourages an expansive approach to tempo-setting, but the Fidelios are concise and purposeful, while never skimming the music superficially.

The opening ‘Modéré’ movement, which can sag structurally, is kept tight and cogent in their interpretation, while the succeeding ‘Pantoum’ dances nimbly with pianist Mary Dullea’s delectably balletic chording, and puckish pizzicato interjections from violin and cello.

It’s Dullea who is at the heart of the ‘Passacaille’ slow movement, and who sets its course emotionally. Her precisely calibrated statement of the opening theme ideally combines the music’s natural gravity with an element of implacability, which stops it seeming dirge-like and soporific.

The finale’s massive surges of dynamic are superbly terraced by the Fidelio, who bring power, cogency and architectural clarity to music that can easily run away with less technically gifted performers. It’s an exceptionally satisfying reading of one of the most difficult works in the piano trio repertoire.

Post-interval there’s a flurry of activity as cable connections are checked, light levels tweaked, the flatscreens twinkle into life, camera angles are tinkered with, and a technician monitors sound levels from a mixing console at the rear of the auditorium.

It’s all in aid of The River Still Sings, a multi-media presentation jointly commissioned by the City of London and Walled City Music festivals as part of the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations.

The River Still Sings

 

Billed as a reflection on the importance of rivers and walls in both cities, and their ‘divisive yet healing potential’, The River Still Sings uses a new piece of poetry by Derry-born writer Seamus Deane to generate a sequence of musical reflections by Frank Lyons, Professor of Music at the University of Ulster.

Complementing these are the flatscreen images devised by Paul Moore, Head of the School of Creative Arts and Technologies at the Magee campus.

It’s a boldly ambitious project, and its reach significantly exceeds its grasp on the evening. But that is no fault of the Fidelio Trio, who bring their customary levels of professional expertise to bear on the project, enacting the musical content vividly.

Pianist Cullea is again prominent, preparing particular sounds on her instrument beforehand, then standing to rap the inner casing with her knuckles and pluck strings during the actual performance.

Lyons’s score makes interesting use of amplified effects (mainly echo), turning violin glissandi ghostly. But his responses to each successive stanza of Deane’s admittedly gnomic and self-consciously erudite text aren’t specially distinctive, or obviously relevant to the poem’s content.

The real problem with the piece, however, lies with the visual imagery. There are three main elements – a digitally generated image of actor and University of Ulster Chancellor James Nesbitt (the ‘virtual narrator’), a set of pinstripe lines, which quiver and oscillate in response to the music, and photographic images collected in Lough Foyle by Paul Moore, from the bottom of a boat supplied by the Loughs Agency.

The photographs, refracted though computer software giving them the quality of flickering silent film images, are unfortunately too small and indistinct to be clearly visible – from a seat in the front third of the hall, it is frequently unclear to me what is in them.

Repetitiveness is another major issue. Moore’s images each make several appearances, the novelty of the pinstripe patterns wears off quickly, the poem is read three times in total, and once you’ve seen Jimmy Nesbitt’s head in digital melt-down half a dozen times or more, you start feeling sorry for him.

The overall impression is that The River Still Sings simply doesn’t have enough creative ideas in it to justify its 30-minute duration. Add a succession of technical glitches acceptable at undergraduate level but embarrassing at a major music festival, and the feeling of a missed opportunity lingers.

The Walled City Music Festival continues in venues across Derry~Londonderry until July 26.

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