March 14, 1997, performance of the RTE Irish National Radio
Orchestra marked the first time that an Irish orchestra has performed
in the United States. Judging by the reaction of the audience--a
packed house of 1200 or so people at Emory's Glenn Memorial
Auditorium--it won't be the last time. The program, ranging from Bill
Whelan to light operatic excerpts and to Leroy Anderson, was carefully
crafted to be a crowd pleaser, and succeeded mightily.
The classical/pops orchestra, 44 persons in strength, played superbly.
The string section, smaller in proportion than the strings of a full-sized
orchestra, played with remarkable lushness and unity--a Philadelphia
Orchestra string section in miniature. The woodwinds (especially
the principal oboe) were exceptionally well-articulated and graceful.
Unfortunately, their talent was not matched by the step dancers they
brought, the male contingent of which imitated the inestimable Michael
Flatley more in personal style than in ability. Soprano Maeve Ni Mhaolchatha
sounded thin in the first half but better warmed-up by the end of
the program, singing a lovely vocalise as part of The Lost Island,
a Famine-based piece by Michael Houlihan that included some very moving
modern dance by the female dancers of the troupe. Piper Michael McGoldrick
played with a nicely under-ornamented style and did a yeoman-like
job in excerpts from Shaun Davey's The Brendan Voyage, including
Water Under the Keel, (my long-time personal favorite piece
from that suite).
The concert was titled The Spirit of Ireland: A Panoramic Tour
of Irish Life and Culture in Music, Poetry and Dance and it is
about this that your reviewer remains puzzled. The best analogy of which I
can think would be the Boston Pops to coming to Atlanta, playing a concert
of classical settings of black spirituals, and calling it The Spirit of
Black America Today. Whatever spirit of Ireland there was in the RTE
program' spirit was solely of lace and teacups, leprechauns and pots of
gold, and perhaps John Wayne falling for Maureen O'Hara. Other than the
compositions by Davey, Houlihan and, of course, Thomas Moore, the music had
little to do with Ireland except for the use of some traditional melodies
arranged and played with every speck of the traditional wrung out of them.
(How dare they include Leroy Anderson's setting of The Irish Washerwoman
under the rubricSpirit of Ireland!)
The concert pandered--successfully--to the audience, presenting
themes of an Ireland that probably never was, accompanied by a narrator who
sounded as English, polished, and superficial as a BBC news reader. There
was no smell of peat anywhere near this concert and, for this individual
reviewer, that smelled in and of itself. Yet 1200 people were thrilled by
the show, and the RTE Orchestra is to be admired for how well they matched
material to audience.