Live Reviews: Ronan Guilfoyle's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Ronan Guilfoyle’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, with Conor Linehan (piano) and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (Laurent Wagner, conductor) on 16 August 2002. On Friday 16th August, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra played the world premier of Ronan...

Ronan Guilfoyle’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, with Conor Linehan (piano) and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (Laurent Wagner, conductor) on 16 August 2002.

On Friday 16th August, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra played the world premier of Ronan Guilfoyle’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, with Conor Linehan on piano. The Concerto was extremely well received, and with good reason, it is an exciting and dramatic work.

Guilfoyle is better known for his involvement in jazz, rather than classical music, being, amongst other roles, director of the jazz department at the Newpark Music Centre in Dublin. As he wrote in the last issue of JMI however, the Concerto is not a jazz concerto in the sense of containing parts that are improvised by the musicians, but it is informed by jazz, particularly in the moments where the drum kit, the only addition to the orchestra, is used to drive the piece.

The Concerto opens with a sombre melody picked out steadily by the bass. It is immediately absorbing, and matters grow more urgent with the introduction of the piano, until very quickly the audience is swept up in a rousing expression of the core melody, powerfully punctuated with short sharp soundings of the brass. At this moment the use of the drum kit is highly effective, and like with Shnitke’s Requiem, when it is fully released, the music is powerful and exciting. It is a strangely contradictory feature of a forceful intervention by the drum kit that at the same time as it articulates a narrow linear rhythm, the music as a whole seems to break from the channel in which it was flowing and much of the excitement it evokes comes from a sense of uncertainty and unpredictability as to what course will next be taken.

The drama and tension of the opening movement cannot, by necessity, be sustained so the question is how to ease it to the contrasting Scherzo that follows. Here, for the first time, there is a sense that the Concerto loses its way. The piano cadenza and the piano’s subsequent interaction with the orchestra in the second movement felt out of keeping with the opening. Again there is an odd dialectic at work, because the intricate piano part is solidly rooted around the opening melody and yet the music seemed to lose coherence at this point. The second movement is like a situation where having touched on extraordinary and important subjects in a discussion, you are on the verge of saying something that is extremely intimate, so deep does it run that you are not even sure exactly what you are going to say, and you need the dialogue with the other person to bring it out. Yet they are continuing to expound the idea that seemed fresh and exciting only moments before, their point now becoming dogmatic through repetition, and so the moment is lost; your racing heart subsides. In the same, slightly anti-climatic way, the Concerto settles down to an exposition of the core melody.

After the pause that divides the piece in two, a fresh melody and a surprisingly romantic movement totally revive the piece. At this point the piano is used in a much more classical manner than in jazz, a slow meandering of notes are allowed to resonate, their timbres distinct. For brief moments it has the same feel as the work of Erik Satie, leisurely, confident and sensual. An almost dreamy string accompaniment allows the piano to accelerate without the piece losing its newfound lyricism, and suddenly, unexpectedly, we were listening to a few seconds of pure magic.

The rather odd programming of the whole concert had seen Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 played to us as the opening piece. I mention this now, because that symphony runs along perfectly soothingly until it too has a moment that seems to crystallise out of nowhere, which is genuinely sweet and heart-warming. It’s hard to explain in writing where that moment is, but if I whistled it, you would recognise it instantly. Well in a similar way Guilfoyle’s Concerto momentarily has a similar delicately beautiful effect, and if there was a recording of it available, which I hope there will be, I would be searching it now to catch that section again.

Now the piece moves towards its climax in the final, pacier, movement. Although the momentum gathers throughout the movement, it is not uniform, which gives it an interesting and unpredictable texture – which is spoiled slightly by lapses into didactic piano parts similar to those in the second movement. When the drum kit and brass are blasting out their tightly controlled bursts of sound around a now darker melody, the final movement is extraordinarily visual. In the film Excalibur there is a scene where the knights of King Arthur are riding together towards their final battle, and certain death. In that scene the film uses the well known excerpts from Orff’s Carmina burana, but excerpts from the fourth movement of this Concerto would be equally effective.

Overall this is a really enjoyable, dramatic, work, and it remains to say only that on the night the performance of the musicians, particularly Conor Linehan, showed that they too believed in the piece. I would also agree with conductor Laurent Wagner’s gesture to Sean Carpio on drums and the trumpet and trombone section of the orchestra for their committed performances.

Published on 1 September 2002

Conor Kostick is a writer and journalist. He is the author of Revolution in Ireland (1996) and, with Lorcan Collins, The Easter Rising (2000).

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