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Festive Trio Gets Its Irish Up


Ian Wilson (Steve Rodgers photo)

In the opening John Kleshinski Concert at the Community Music Center of Boston we heard offerings one would expect to be quite popular in Boston: an Irish-themed program of traditional and classical pieces, including a new work by an esteemed Irish composer, and CMCB’s Allen Hall was, indeed, nearly full Thursday night. But almost everyone there had some connection to the school (yours truly, a member of its corporation, included), which left us scratching our head(s); leave it to others to ponder the sociology.

Trio Festivale, comprises flutist Sabrina Hu, cellist Gerald Peregrine, and pianist Cathal (pronounced, we’re told, ca-HAAL) Breslin. All three (of whom the latter two are Irish) have connections to the University of Memphis (TN), where they became friendly with bassoonist and music administrator Lecolion Washington, who is now the Executive Director of CMCB. They thus included Boston on their premiere tour for the new piece, having already taken it to U Memphis, U of South Florida (Tampa), and U of Florida (Gainesville), concluding in a few days at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. Their compact program, run without an intermission, consisted of the Trio on Irish Folk Melodies (1925) by Swiss composer Frank Martin; a suite of traditional Irish tunes arranged for them by their U Memphis colleague Sam Shoup, and The Great Hunger (2017), written for them by Irish composer Ian Wilson, based on the 1942 sprawling poem of that name by the great Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh.

The Martin is a reasonably familiar. Commissioned by an Irish-American resident in Paris (where Martin spent most of his career) who then stiffed Martin for the fee on the grounds that it didn’t sound Irish enough, it cleverly weaves an often-contrapuntal tapestry of some 14 Irish melodies into a suite-like structure of three movements. While the melodic character stresses modal and pentatonic relationships and the harmony often brings out archaic sounds like parallel fifths, the punchy rhythms, occasional sharp dissonances, and overall tenor of the work are consistent with the brittle post-Impressionist milieu of Les Six. The opening Allegro moderato gives some soulful expression to the cello, well brought out by Peregrine, over which the flute floats with cheerier descants. The Adagio continues this methodology, with Peregrine and Hu carrying the contrapuntal action with conviction, if not fully polished elegance. The concluding jig (Martin of course wrote it “gigue”) was both effervescent and restrained, the players not going too fast, with some surprisingly dark and intense music in the middle, including ominous tritone marching passages, which carried forward in counterpoint to the jollier bits to conclude. This movement gave us ample opportunity to note Breslin’s rock-solid and fleet-fingered negotiation of passages of considerable complexity.

The five folk tunes arranged by Shoup illustrated perfectly the impression that nothing ever ends well in an Irish ballad. They included the ever-popular The Last Rose of Summer, The Mason’s Apron (the only up-tempo item, it’s a hornpipe, which is of English origin), the nicely voiced Lark in the Clear Air, the mournful She Moved Through the Fair, and Little Molly O’ (wherein lovers are parted because her father objects to her marrying a “foreigner,” to wit a Scotsman). The straightforward and unfussy settings were notable for cello parts that were almost exclusively played on the D and A strings (mostly the latter), with the only low extension occurring at the end of the penultimate tune; this rather suited the somewhat intimate sound of Peregrine’s 1920s French instrument (and kudos to Shoup if he planned it that way). The readings were all as characteristic and direct as the settings.

The main event came of course, in Wilson’s opus, which he characterized as a “rondo-fantasy” that sought to capture several main themes of Kavanagh’s epic work, rather than try to depict scenes from it in detail. That rather expresses the modus operandi of most composers’ interpretations of literary works, and it is in the context of, say, Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, Dvořák’s Golden Spinning Wheel, or Converse’s Festival of Pan rather than Strauss’s pictorialism, that one should approach The Great Hunger.

First a word about the composer. Americans would be hard-pressed to name more than three Irish composers of classical music: John Field, Victor Herbert and Charles Stanford, all of whom spent most of their careers outside Ireland; epicureans might throw in Michael William Balfe, Patrick Gilmore, Hamilton Harty and Ernest John Moeran. Good luck thinking about living composers. Ian Wilson, 54, comes from Northern Ireland, though he has been resident in the Irish Republic for many years. His catalogue is extensive (18 string quartets so far!) and he’s received play, naturally, throughout Ireland (north and south), in the UK and elsewhere in Europe; the current run in fact, takes support from both Culture Ireland and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. This was, however, the first time anything of his had been heard in Boston (confirmed by him via email), though a piece for Somerville’s Sonic Liberation Players is planned for next year). He’s had, he says, a few performances in California and New York. A quick review of some available online recordings of Wilson’s œuvre shows him to be a composer of ambition and depth, whose work is definitely worth treating as respectfully as his British and Continental colleagues. He usually writes in what you’d call abstract ways, though seldom abstrusely, but has sometimes imparted features of Irish music in his own, much as Judith Weir has done with Scottish turns of phrase.

Now the piece. Kavanagh’s poem, from 1942, came as a kind of rebuke to Irish culture, which had long depicted rural life in a Romantic haze of happy sons-of-the-soil peasantry. What Kavanagh, a child of rural peasants, did was burn off the haze and shine scorching sunlight on the oppressive, depressing, soul-deadening material and spiritual deprivation of such a life and its afflictions: futile labor, empty relationships, crushing poverty, enslavement to a rapacious Church. Needless to say, such a view was not popular at the time.  It was especially unwelcome inasmuch as its name and chronology were meant to evoke the century-past calamity of the famine laid at the feet of the colonial oppressor; but The Great Hunger isn’t directly about the Great Hunger, and its focus is on internal rather than external evils. Kavanagh created an anti-hero named Patrick Maguire, whose relationship to soil, work, family, love and Church the poem and Wilson’s music sought to examine.

In his written notes and in a video played before the performance, Wilson pointed out that he chose several musical themes and motifs to go with various aspects of Maguire’s existence and Kavanagh’s reflections on them. The most obvious of these relates to the influence of the Church, in which Wilson picked the 16th-century chorale “O Man Thy Sin is Great,” in Bach’s harmonization. To suggest the broken relationship between Maguire and the Church, Wilson sets it in the piano with “smears” of dissonant counterpoint in the other instruments; but in referring to Maguire’s far-from-benign mother’s fully orthodox religion, the chorale is pretty much unalloyed. Overall, Wilson effectively combines triadic and chromatic passages, and offers moments of savagery juxtaposed with modified lyricism. The posture of the music is in the current post-atonal (that is, relaxed but not retrograde) idiom. As this was a first hearing, we couldn’t really tease out all the details, but can report that the piece is interesting enough that we’d like to hear it again. One thing we find intriguing is thinking about Wilson’s relationship to Kavanagh much as one ponders Kavanagh’s relation to Yeats: The critique of Irish society and culture Kavanagh presents is now over 75 years old, and Irish society has once again re-invented itself as a modern one, fully integrated in a cosmopolitan Europe. Where do old rebels like Kavanagh fit into that picture? We’re not sure Wilson has focused attention on that aspect of the culture.

Trio Festivale showed ardency and commitment, and evinced ease with the manifest complexity of some of the passages and techniques Wilson created for them.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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