NEW YORK—The New York Concerti Sinfonietta presented an ambitious Irish Festival Oct. 7 through 13. The Sinfonietta offered four different programs in four venues in just seven days, a feat of logistics similar to offering the four operas of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle in a single week.
In addition to the First-Prize winners’ of the 2015 International Shining Stars Competition concert at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall (Oct. 11), performances were held in an East Side mansion (Oct. 7) and two historic West Side churches: Our Lady of Pompeii (Oct. 9) and St. Gregory the Great (Oct. 13).
While the first two events were non-orchestral, the third and fourth concerts were accompanied by the New York Concerti Sinfonietta, numbering on this occasion 32 players, under the skillful leadership of principal conductor Paul Hostetter.
Dr. Julie Jordan is artistic director and founder of the New York Concerti Sinfonietta and its competitions. Last year, she celebrated her 30th year as a member of the piano faculty of The Juilliard School’s Evening Division.
Dr. Jordan’s father is of Irish descent. Last May, in a series of three New York concerts, Dr. Jordan displayed the first fruits of her new collaboration with the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin.
The Irish Festival
For the current Irish Festival, Dr. Jordan auditioned contestants in Ireland as well as the United States, comprising a variety of nationalities and geographical origins. The Festival distinguished itself by presenting newly discovered competition winners of impressive attainment, various child prodigies whose musicality and insight belied their chronological age, and special guest appearances by world-class celebrity artists.
Music and Drama
Expanding its previous musical programing, the Sinfonietta for the first time added theater to the mix. (Dance is promised in the future.)
On Oct. 7, the initial presentation of the Irish Festival was given at—appropriately enough— the Irish American Historical Society on Fifth Avenue. A capacity audience was on-hand for an absorbing two-part program.
The first half was a drama, “Two Stars: Yeats and Joyce in Words and Music,” by Joseph Hassett, who was in attendance. Actor/singer Nathaniel Janis played James Joyce; W. B. Yeats was portrayed by Peter Rogan, and Colin Lane acted as narrator. Coincidentally, this year is the 150th anniversary of Yeats’ birth.
We learned that Joyce trained as a singer and once considered it as a career. There are as many as 3,500 musical references in Joyce’s writings, which include such seminal masterpieces as “Dubliners,” “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” “Ulysses,” and “Finnegans Wake.” Stated the narrator, “Yeats invented Ireland; Joyce invented Dublin.”
The play, “Two Stars,” portrayed the often fraught relationship between Joyce and Yeats, as documented in their correspondence. The elder poet, 17 years Joyce’s senior, recognized his genius and offered help. The 22-year-old Joyce rebelliously and defiantly refused Yeats’ aid, arrogantly stating, “I have met you too late. You are too old.” Wrote Yeats to Joyce (quoting Dr. Johnson), “Let us wait until we find out whether he is a fountain or a cistern.” Later, Joyce was to implore Yeats’ assistance and gratefully accept it.
All three actors performed admirably, and 24-year-old Nathaniel Janis was an excellent choice as Joyce. He manifested a most musical, well-modulated tenor voice as he touchingly sang—a cappella— Yeats’s “Who Goes with Fergus.” Joyce considered Yeats’s poem to have the best lyrics in the world, and set it to music himself. He sang his setting of Yeats’ lyric at the deathbeds of both his brother and his mother.
So engrossing was this 20-minute drama, it left me wanting more. It could have easily continued to hold the audience’s interest for twice its length.
The second half of the evening’s program, “JoyceSong: Irish Songs from the Works of James Joyce,” presented nearly a dozen Irish songs quoted by Joyce, as well as Yeats’s “Down by the Salley Gardens” and a different setting of Yeats’s “Who Goes with Fergus.” “JoyceSong” had previously been heard in Ireland, Monaco, and Washington, D.C. This was its New York premiere.
Professor Fran O’Rourke (billed as “Philosopher”) was a genial commentator who sang in a pleasant baritone voice. He quoted G. K. Chesterton’s dictum, “God bless the Irish, for all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.” O’Rourke’s idiomatic, folksy delivery of these frequently plaintive songs was memorable. Some were sung in Gaelic as well as English.
Any misgivings that the often strophic songs might lead to monotony were dispelled by the endlessly varied and colorful guitar accompaniments of John Feeley, considered Ireland’s leading classical guitarist. He is easily the finest guitarist I have heard since Andrés Segovia.
Carnegie Hall International Shining Stars Concert
The musical high point of the Irish Festival was the 2015 International Shining Stars Competition Winners’ concert—with special guests—in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on the afternoon of Oct. 11. Seven performers appeared with the New York Concerti Sinfonietta. Three were heard solely as solo players or with piano accompaniment. Four musicians also appeared both with orchestra, and accompanied by piano or as solitary soloists, at Carnegie and supplemental concerts.
Masterly Guest Guitarist
Leading off at Carnegie was special guest artist John Feeley in the first movement Allegro maestoso of Mauro Giuliani’s Rossini-influenced Guitar Concerto No. 1 in A Major, Op. 30.
Feeley is a supreme master of his instrument. Aristocratic and refined, with an unusually wide range of dynamics—from hushed, subtle nuances to powerful strumming—he was perfectly audible without benefit of amplification. He displayed nimble, agile fingering, leavened with tasteful vibrato.
The Sinfonietta, pared-down to a chamber ensemble of 11 strings for this work, was well-balanced with the soloist, sounding rich and warm.
Guitarist’s Gifted Protégé
Also on the program was 15-year-old Dublin guitarist Liam McManus, who has studied with John Feeley since the age of 7. Proving the maxim that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” McManus demonstrated many of the stylistic hallmarks of his teacher and mentor. He seems well on his way to becoming an important artist of his generation.
The Adagio from the Vivaldi Guitar Concerto in D Major, RV 93 that McManus performed is actually from a concerto for lute transcribed by Feeley, who elaborated and ornamented the solo part. Similar in character to the popular Albinoni Adagio, hushed strings played a shimmering halo of sustained chords while McManus delicately decorated the melodic line.
McManus also played two subtly shaded Spanish solos: the fiery, flamenco-inspired “Leyenda” (“Legend”) by Isaac Albéniz, and Francisco Tarrega’s haunting “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” (“Memories of the Alhambra”), a palace in Granada, Spain.
Prodigious Young Cellist
When 10-year-old Irish-American Ian Maloney made his debut with the New York Concerti Sinfonietta as recently as May 5, the diminutive cellist was still playing a three-quarter-size instrument. Now age 11, he has graduated to a full-sized cello, which is nearly as big as he is. He will soon, no doubt, grow into it. Ian, who also plays the piano and trumpet, has been studying cello since the age of 3, and is currently attending the Manhattan School of Music.
Ian gave a soulful, impassioned account of Gabriel Fauré’s “Élégie” that was mature far beyond his years. His playing was commendable for its full tone, accurate intonation, shapely phrasing, nuanced bowing, and restrained dynamics where appropriate. What was extraordinary, however, was how he penetrated to the heart of the music. The chilling conclusion, which was truly emotionally moving, descended to the depths of despair but with a hint of consolation. “What does an 11-year-old know about loss?” you may ask. The answer is, “Everything.” This type of musical insight cannot be taught, nor can it be learned by rote. It is a gift that is altogether rare, and bodes well for Ian’s future.
Fresh and Exciting Violinist
An exciting, fresh and glowing performance of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26 was given by 20-year-old Irish native Abigail McDonagh, who is currently studying in Lübeck, Germany.
Due to time limitations on Oct. 11, she played only the first movement, abruptly truncated with a jarring tacked-on concert ending because the opening movement is directly linked to the next. Thankfully, on Oct. 13, McDonagh was heard in the entire Bruch Concerto at St. Gregory the Great Church.
Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is sometimes dismissively referred to as the “poor man’s Brahms Violin Concerto.” In McDonagh’s capable and imaginative hands, it was the “rich man’s Bruch Concerto.” Playing from memory, her impassioned performance of the Allegro moderato first movement was thoroughly commanding, ably backed by the full-throated Sinfonietta, ardently helmed by Maestro Hostetter.
In the second movement Adagio, McDonagh played with patrician elegance, the violin soaring over the sustained chordal orchestral accompaniment like a benediction. Conductor and soloist worked hand-in-glove in their sensitive phrasing of the long melodic lines, making the movement a thing of beauty.
The Allegro energico finale, which surely inspired the last movement of Brahms’ violin concerto premiered a decade later, was played with well-sprung rhythms and fleet, effervescent passagework. She ended the concerto in a mood of joyous affirmation that elicited a spontaneous ovation from the audience.
At a separate appearance at the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii Oct. 9, McDonagh played a varied solo and chamber music program. She gave an eloquent account of the first movement Adagio and a lively and nimble reading of the fourth movement Presto of J. S. Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G Minor for unaccompanied violin, BWV 1001. This was followed by a dramatic, sensuous performance of Fritz Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice for solo violin, Op. 6.
Joined by the outstanding collaborative pianist Evan Solomon on a tonally opulent Mason and Hamlin grand piano, she went on to play Olivier Messiaen’s relatively accessible but fearsomely difficult and infrequently encountered Theme and Variations for Violin and Piano, which builds to an ecstatic climax and then subsides, ebbing away in a mystical conclusion.
McDonagh closed the group with the Saint-Saëns “Havanaise,” Op. 83. It was a smoldering, insinuating, bravura performance. Seldom have I heard the habanera rhythms delineated with such clarity in both violin and piano, or the dancelike elements so prominent. McDonagh had virtuosity to burn. As an encore, she played a wistful Irish Air with variations, “The Coolin,” displaying her sumptuous tone on her violin’s lowest string.
Brilliant Guest Broadway Baritone
Ciarán Sheehan, a charismatic and versatile Dublin-born, internationally recognized singer, was invited to perform by Julie Jordan at her Irish Festival as a special guest celebrity. He sang both before intermission and at the close of the concert.
Sheehan has a powerful, vocally trained, focused baritone voice, with a secure falsetto extension higher than the range of a tenor. He reminds me of other eminent operatically trained baritones who branched-out into Broadway repertoire, including Ezio Pinza, Cesare Siepi, George London, and Robert Merrill.
In remarks to the audience, Sheehan explained that “Les Misérables” had been his first Broadway show. He confided that Vice President Biden had asked him to sing “Bring Him Home” at his son’s recent funeral.
Accompanied in this Carnegie concert by the New York Concerti Sinfonietta, movingly led by Maestro Paul Hostetter, Sheehan’s repeated pleas to “let him live” and “bring him home” were heartbreakingly poignant, bringing tears to this hardened critic’s eyes.
Also heard with the Sinfonietta was Samuel Konkol, a 16-year-old cellist from Florida. He played the Allegro molto finale from Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C Major, Hob. VIIb/1, a work that was lost for two centuries, only being rediscovered in 1961.
Konkol delivered an energetic, vigorous, incisive performance, with sharply accented bowing, and agile left-hand fingering in the rapid passages. A significant drawback, however, was a persistent tendency to play below the proper pitch.
Irish-American Quinlan Facey of Dallas, Texas, has won many competitions and awards. At Carnegie, as the final artist of the afternoon to perform with the New York Concerti Sinfonietta, he played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 in its entirety.
Despite his relative youth, he gave it an intelligent, fully developed and well thought-out interpretation that was mesmerizing. The animated first movement showed a welcome appreciation for articulation and structure, while doing justice to Beethoven’s gruff, masculine, leonine nature. The movement was capped by a fiery, powerful, and virtuosic cadenza that was a particular standout.
In the second movement, Facey’s songful, sensitively phrased statement of the hymn-like theme had the character of a musical prayer. He was seconded by the Sinfonietta’s beautifully played and shaped, sustained woodwind lines in the flutes, oboes, and bassoons.The Mozartian finale was appropriately playful. Facey’s effervescent playing was dazzling in its facility.
Maestro Hostetter led a stylish and supportive orchestral accompaniment. Rhythmically propulsive, it was carefully balanced and dynamically nuanced, distinguished by forceful timpani-playing at its conclusion.
Non-Orchestral Solo and Chamber Music
After the Sinfonietta had completed its obligations, four soloists remained to be heard in the closing, non-orchestral portion of the Carnegie program.
Peter Regan, Piano
Pianist Peter Regan studied at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, and is currently enrolled in the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto. He is a pupil of the renowned Irish pianist John O’Conor.
Regan played the Largo e mesto second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 7 in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3. Regan’s interpretation was assertive, large-scale, and tonally powerful, emphasizing the music’s tragic character. He weighted the inner voices so that their interplay could be readily heard, and exploited the Steinway Concert Grand’s deep, resonant bass register. The audience listened in hypnotic, rapt silence.
Yoko Maeda, Soprano
Soprano Yoko Maeda, sensitively supported by pianist Miwa Noda (a student of Dr. Jordan), is an experienced singer who is a member of the Tokyo Chamber Opera Theatre. On this occasion, she sang Kosaku Yamada’s “Let’s Arrange a Blue Bed,” written in the style of the French Impressionists (Duparc and Chausson); Respighi’s coquettish, Puccini-esque waltz, “Invito alla Danza”; and Verdi’s “Pace, pace, mio Dio” from “La Forza del Destino.”
Maeda has a sizeable, operatic voice, well-supported and accurately pitched, with an even vibrato. She exhibited charm and fully professional control of physical gestures and facial expressions. Big voices are a rare commodity these days.
Like all large voices, she needs to be listened to in a large auditorium to fully appreciate the heft and timbre of her sound. She was heard to better advantage on Oct. 9 in the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii than on Oct. 11 in Weill Recital Hall. Her stunningly sustained high B-flat at the conclusion of the Verdi aria set the church’s highly reverberant acoustics to ringing for a full five seconds while it died away.
Max Wang, Piano
Max Wang, 14 years old, attends St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, where he is in the ninth grade. He has been playing piano since the age of 4. Performing Schumann/Liszt’s “Dedication,” he gave a fluent, confident, virtuosic account of Liszt’s florid transcription of Schumann’s exultant love song, “Widmung,” from the song cycle “Myrthen,” Op. 25, No. 1.
Lauren Li, Piano
A petite pianist from Dallas, 10-year-old Lauren Li studies with the same teacher as Max Wang and Quinlan Facey. A fifth grader, she started playing piano at age 5. Her performance at Carnegie of Grieg’s “Butterfly,” from “Lyric Pieces,” Op. 43, No. 1, showed impressive technique and poise. Two days later, she made her concerto debut with the New York Concerti Sinfonietta at St. Gregory the Great Church.
Playing from memory the first movement of Mozart’s sunny Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414, Li paid welcome attention to clarity of finger articulation, varied dynamics, and stylish phrasing, bringing out the bass lines with surprising power and fullness of tone.
As a final treat, celebrity singer Ciarán Sheehan closed the Carnegie program with “Music of the Night” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” a part he had sung on Broadway over 1,000 times and recently played in Toronto. He was partnered by pianist Julie Jordan, who played with luminous sonority. Their chemistry was palpable. The two performers phrased and breathed as one.
The number concluded with a perfectly produced pianissimo, floated falsetto high note, seemingly prolonged beyond human capability. The concert indeed literally “ended on a high note.” “Phantom” is one role that gives the term “singing in the mask” more than one meaning.
The performers richly deserved the ovation they received. The audience went home exhilarated by the level of talent they had witnessed in a single concert.
Michael Sherwin, a Rockefeller and Fromm Foundation Fellow in Music Criticism, currently writes for the Epoch Times, Wagner Notes, and other publications. He is currently serving as producer of a forthcoming 2-CD album of 20th-century American choral music, under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Winners of upcoming New York Concerti Sinfonietta auditions will make their debuts in Carnegie Hall’s 125th anniversary season on June 3, 2016. Additional performances will take place on Jan. 9-12, 2016, and June 4-7, 2016. International auditions will be held annually at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin; San Francisco, California; Dallas, Texas; and New York City.
For information on the 2016 International Shining Stars Carnegie Hall debuts with the New York Concerti Sinfonietta and additional performance opportunities, contact [email protected] or newyorkconcertisinfonietta.com.