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Migrations weekend at the National Concert Hall: Five string quartets, one five-star performance and some puzzling decisions

Review: The Belcea, Carducci, Solas, Pavel Haas and Modigliani Quartets played works by Jonathan Dove, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Julian Anderson, among others


National Concert Hall, Dublin

On Saturday and Sunday the National Concert Hall presented a string-quartet weekend, curated by Ciara Higgins under the title Migrations. Music and migration are intricately intertwined. Why? Because migration has always been an essential part of human life. People migrate towards better circumstances and greater opportunities.

The weekend featured five ensembles, the Belcea, Carducci, Solas, Pavel Haas and Modigliani Quartets, of which only the last-named appears to be a single-nationality group. From a broader perspective, concerts of music by Beethoven, Brahms and Stravinsky, or Scarlatti, Chopin and Liszt, are concerts of works by migrant composers. In fact, a concert without a migrant composer is more the exception than the rule.

The weekend was declared to have a focus “on works for the times we live in”. That would have been more accurately worded as “from” the times we live in. The opening piece, Jonathan Dove’s In Damascus (2016), was commissioned by the Sacconi Quartet, who suggested the composer write something with a Syrian theme.

The resulting work, for tenor and string quartet, sets words from Anne-Marie McManus’s translation of Ali Safar’s A Black Cloud in a Leaden White Sky. The minimalistic music is pared back and intense, as direct as the words themselves – “My heard is a black lump of coal... Our days: a black box, never to be opened.” Robin Tritschler and the Carducci Quartet gave it their all.


Charlotte Bray’s Ungrievable Lives, first heard at Wigmore Hall in London in 2022, took its inspiration from Caroline Burraway’s installation of the same title. The artist’s own description says it all: “Thirteen children’s dresses handmade from lifejackets the artist gathered from the Lifejacket Graveyard, Lesvos. Each dress represents one of the 13 million child refugees worldwide. Today as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, this number is now 15 million.”

The music was performed in the NCH Studio, the performers sharing the stage with the brightly lit orange fabric of the helpless suspended dresses, all casting dark shadows. The Solas Quartet’s performance of the subdued and disturbed music was somehow almost reverential, like an obeisance to the silent power of the artwork they were sharing the stage with.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Split Apart (2020) is an angry, upset, heart-on-sleeve response to Brexit that was given a superbly grounded performance by the Modigliani Quartet, the ire of the composer clearly contained by the Beethovenian connections, which include an incorporation of the Ode to Joy symbolically rendered unrecognisable.

Dove, Bray and Turnage are all English. Two further works by living English composers were also included. Julian Anderson’s Fourth String Quartet was, by some margin, the most complex and compositionally elaborately textured work of the weekend. It conveyed a curious sense of layered surfaces, connected but distinct, almost like fractal images viewed simultaneously at different resolutions. The Belcea Quartet gave what sounded like an impeccable performance.

Rohan Harron is a Huddersfield-born student at the Royal Irish Academy of Music whose Psychotia (played by the Solas Quartet) is a response to lockdown. It’s a short, jagged piece, gesturally strong, but not as persuasive in aspects of fine detail.

The National Concert Hall aspires to international standards of excellence. It’s never going to get there if it can’t deal with basic requirements

No Irish composer was represented over the two days, so the Quartet No 3 of the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, from 2011, dedicated to the Kronos Quartet and inspired by Eamonn Quinn of Louth Contemporary Music Society, had to stand as a kind of substitute. Silvestrov has said that he believes “there is some Irish accent and some naive melodies to permeate the whole work that may sound as symbols of this wonderful country, in which destiny and historical legacy I perceive a close spiritual affinity to Ukraine, my homeland”. But the composer’s familiar nostalgic manner, and his characteristic recursive, side-stepping harmonies, were to the fore as usual, in the Carducci Quartet’s sympathetic performance.

The highlight of the weekend was the concert, given in the main auditorium, in which the Belcea Quartet framed Julian Anderson’s new String Quartet No 4 with beautifully illuminated and insightful performances of two highly contrasted Beethoven Quartets, the one in C minor from Op 18 and the late Quartet in E flat, Op 127. They went on to deliver a magical encore, the slow movement of Debussy’s Quartet in G minor, as exquisite-sounding as anything you’re ever likely to hear from any quartet, anywhere. This was the weekend’s one five-star concert.

Migrations included panel discussions hosted by the broadcaster John Kelly, who often sounded as though he would rather talk about anything save the music that had been heard, repeating dull questions as if he were on autopilot. It is a credit to all his guests that they coped as well as they did. It’s so much easier to talk about Brexit, Ukraine or Syria than actual works of music.

Aspects of the National Concert Hall’s handling of the weekend struck me as close to shameful. Printed programmes with music notes telling audiences about works from the standard repertoire are the norm at the NCH. For Migrations nothing seemed to be provided about any of the string quartets, new or old – not even the name of Julian Anderson’s new work, for which the NCH was one of the commissioners. It was as if everything was to be listened to and understood in a cultural vacuum. Sadly, most of the works were not even identified by the performers at the concerts themselves.

The National Concert Hall aspires to international standards of excellence. It’s never going to get there if it can’t deal with basic requirements. Precisely what the Migrations title was meant to refer to was never clear. It seemed like a trendy touch tacked on after the programme was in place. The most striking aspects of the programming were in fact the exclusion of Irish composers and the inclusion of so many contemporary English ones. The future is clear. “Fail again. Fail better.”

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor