Classical Music: Tempus fugit

National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland Edinburgh Festival Theatre
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It is, perhaps, unfair to diagnose an orchestra's ills on the evidence of one concert. The National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland was upgraded eight years ago from a small-scale broadcasting ensemble. That ought to be sufficient time for some kind of character and confidence to develop, given the right conductors. The musicians are mostly young, brilliant ex-students on their way up. Yet, at present, the tone sounds lean and sinewy and the rhythm flounders like a stranded porpoise.

Unfair, too, to assume that the sound they made in Edinburgh's Festival Theatre, where the acoustic is excellent for opera but too dry for a symphony concert, was really typical. Yet the general limpness, one suspects, has a lot to do with their current conductor, Kasper de Roo. He is a time- beater. Even in the most atmospheric passages, his beat has a little jerk on the end of it, like a military bandmaster. He is impossible to watch, even for the audience; it must be a great trial to play under him.

The players - some of them are very fine, including a luxuriant flautist and a sonorous cor anglais player - cope with this by finding their own expressive space, half a second behind the beat. This leads to bumps and skids; there are fumbled and cracked notes, and in "Laideronnette" from Ravel's Mother Goose De Roo nearly had them in the ditch. Also, it makes it hard to establish a good tempo right at the start, and very often the orchestra begins at one speed, the conductor at another (the players, predictably, usually get it right) and the two drift together in the opening bars. In the end, most of the music was played too slowly, banishing any feelings of intensity or excitement and making it impossible to sustain any real sensuality.

Stravinsky's Firebird suite was best, though the initial spiky waltz failed to swing; the score's massive textures gathered their own momentum and steamrollered the little jerks and twitches coming from the podium. But, significantly, the star attraction of the concert - the pianist Barry Douglas - sounded bored to death in Beethoven's Fourth Concerto, eventually losing concentration and dishing out a take-it-or-leave-it finale without any dignity or grandeur. Someone had decided to reduce the size of the orchestra, which was a mistake, given the size of the piano and the dryness of the hall. Douglas's passagework totally dominated, the strings sounding starved and clammy, and the structure of the opening movement went in big sweeps, the soloist playing towards targets in the middle distance, avoiding trivial espressivo. The dialogue of the slow movement was half- hearted until the very end, the coda settling into a placid dream of stillness.

There was also a new Irish piece, Gerald Barry's Flamboys. This was an eclectic mix of 20th-century styles of no particular originality, Rite of Spring meets Turangalila. Its opening dialogue of bassoon and trumpet sounded ungrateful to play. In tune with the general impression of this concert, it was not much fun.

NSOI perform at the RFH tonight, 7.30pm (0171-960 4242)