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By Michael Dervan
Liam O’Flynn – An Droichead. Mendelssohn – Piano Concerto No 1. Mahler – Symphony No 5.
The National Concert Hall didn’t mark the dates of its 10th or 20th anniversaries in any special way. But the opening of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s new season fell on the 30th anniversary to the day, and Friday’s concert was also the beginning of a weekend of celebratory events.
The orchestra’s patron, President Mary McAleese, was in attendance, and her presence caused an extra work to be added to open the evening. Uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn’s An Droichead was commissioned by the President for her inauguration in 1997, and it brings to the sound world of the uilleann pipes a backdrop of lush orchestral drapery.
Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero was the flighty, fleet-fingered soloist in Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor. Her approach to the piece was a highly polarised one, with the impetuosity of one extreme matched by the reflective calm of the other. Buribayev and his players didn’t always manage to stay fully in step, but they were always fully in spirit.
Montero offered an improvisation as an encore, and was back on stage for a late-night concert in which she improvised on themes that members of the audience sang to her.
This was a process that ended up bringing some Irish material on unexpectedly exotic journeys, as Montero took a trip through a broad range of pianistic and ethnic styles. Think of the exercise as a kind of one-person musical version of the radio panel game, Just a Minute. Surprise angles, wild digressions and unexpected interruptions were as much a part of the fun as the mere fact that the performer could actually keep the show imaginatively on the road in the first place.
The NSO’s main programme ended with principal conductor Alan Buribayev’s first venture into Mahler. If there’s one thing that remains in the memory from this performance it’s the strength of the horn playing, gloriously thrusting and confident in a way that I’ve never before heard from this orchestra.
The sheer brazenness of the horns was entirely apt in a performance that was outgoing and definite, always technically sure-footed and moulded with a steady hand. It was, in many ways, at the opposite end of the spectrum to the performance Benjamin Zander gave with the NSO nearly 10 years ago. Zander focused the music at the level of the personal. Buribayev treated it as a public statement out to make a big impression. It was very much a young man’s approach from a still young conductor.