MUSIC / A conservative party: Michael Dervan reports from Dublin on Music Now, a celebration of contemporary Irish music

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The Independent Culture
Since 1991, which saw the demise of the Accents festival, Dublin has been without a showcase for the work of contemporary composers. The extraordinary decision by the national broadcasting service, RTE, to include just one work by a living Irish composer in the 1993 subscription series of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) provoked such a public furore that a palliative of some sort was bound to be offered in due course. It materialised at the end of February as a 10-day 'celebration of new Irish music' under the billing Music Now.

Sadly, the programming professed no theme or focus, and in the absence of work by the likes of Gerald Barry, Frank Corcoran and Paul Hayes, the most discernible trend was towards conservatism.

This was most striking in the work of senior figures like Seoirse Bodley and John Kinsella, both now in their sixties. The two symphonies heard (Bodley's Fourth and Kinsella's Fifth) both display the composers' re-engagement with classical models and they also share something of the sense of busy stasis - dancing on a single spot - that one associates with minimalism. In both works, too, harmonic tension is low, and the chosen harmonic colouring brings to mind images of grey and brown.

Far more striking was Raymond Deane's new Seachanges (with danse macabre), a piece for chamber ensemble inspired by two very different seascapes, one at Ardtrasna in Sligo, the other at Huatulco on the Pacific coast of Mexico. From its arresting, piercingly shrill opening, the music has a brightly coloured immediacy and displays an insistent grotesquerie, taken rather too far at the end, I felt, with the removal of a toy skeleton from inside the piano. This must be among the most outgoing pieces that Deane has written, and its faux-naif directness speaks strongly of the impact made on the composer by his visit to Mexico last year.

One of the surprising failures in Music Now was Philip Flood's Kicking Down, a first orchestral work, jointly commissioned by the Ulster Orchestra and the NSO. The NSO's lack-lustre, ill-balanced performance under Colman Pearce stifled what was intended as a punchy, motor-like exercise - one of the references of the title is to the kick-start pedal of a motorcycle. In the same concert, problems of balance between soloist and orchestra were troubling in James Wilson's viola concerto, Menorah, a piece inspired by a visit to Jerusalem and, in particular, the memorial to the children killed in the Holocaust. Constantin Zanidache here essayed the solo part with a cautious, sometimes even diffident, intimacy, which the tonal bulk of Colman Pearce's accompaniment mostly obscured. In spite of the difficulties, the almost Bergian intensity of the opening of the third movement was effective and the work surely deserves re-hearing under more sympathetic circumstances.

The 'New Talent' concert, promoted by the Contemporary Music Centre, featured work by five young women, with the most sophisticated compositional challenges being set by Deirdre Gribbin and Grainne Mulvey. The lighter, etude-like clock-play of Ann Hoban's Kurvey exerted a stronger appeal for me, with touches of a smile-raising dry wit that was rare in this series.