Galway city is full of music. With audiences flocking to the year-round traditional music sessions and calendar highlights like the Galway Early Music Festival, the presence of the long-admired ConTempo String Quartet, and now a new music department at the university, music in Galway has never been in better health. Musicians and audiences know, however, that Galway really needs two things to become a truly musical city: a good concert venue and an orchestra. After an energizing concert from the Luminosa String Orchestra, the second ambition seems that much closer. The instrumentalists began the evening a gathering of outstanding individual musicians, and ended something like a distinctive potent ensemble. Responding to this rising wave the audience was carried along. Altogether it felt like a significant moment in Galway’s musical life.
Held in Galway Cathedral on 19 June, the concert, the second in the orchestra’s ‘Soundings’ series, showcased a spectacular interior, and richly resonant if not flawless acoustics – there is a reason when concert halls separated from churches they didn’t take domes and aisles with them. But these extraordinarily talented players adapted to the conditions, finding a pace and cadence that suited, and playing better and better as they responded to the space and the listeners’ warmth.
Strings, not woodwind, are the lungs of an orchestra, providing oxygen for the bloodstream while setting the air vibrating with the tempo, the temperature, the texture of a unified acoustic life. As ever-present workhorses of symphonic scores, string players are also perhaps most taken for granted amidst the exotic colours and brilliancy of a full orchestra, but collectively they are the most important (and arguably the trickiest) section to get right, as players learn how to bow, move, and breathe together. Performing as a stand-alone group, therefore, a string section is particularly exposed to scrutiny; but can also provide the most moving of experiences. Luminosa played like a new instrument made from freshly cut wood, tensile and vibrant, all movement and grain and potential energy. It might take time to settle into an established character, to grow into the most satisfying mellow sound, as the ensemble acquires layers of varnish and experience. All the same, it was exciting to be there at a moment of fresh energy and potential.
It helped that the programme conducted a varied and satisfying tour through modern and contemporary music, beginning and ending with Irish musicians. In his lifetime the Irish composer Arthur Duff was best known for his work with Radio Éireann and the Abbey Theatre. His Meath Pastoral, dedicated to the acerbic writer Brinsley McNamara, devoted itself to lushness of landscape colouration, combining splashes of the tone-poems of Ernest Moeran and Vaughan Williams with the more taut formal qualities of Peter Warlock’s themes and variations. Thoughtfully followed by Elgar’s evergreen Serenade for Strings, and then Soundposts by the Scottish composer John Maxwell Geddes, these pieces showed an orchestra (featuring players from Romania and Hungary as well Ireland, England, and Scotland) right at home in describing the common landscapes and string-scapes of these islands. On occasion Luminosa, ably directed from the violin by Paul Ezergailis, was still searching for precision, but throughout it found a resonance and dynamic range (something often not attended to) at once surprising and powerful. The poised and elegant Larghetto of Elgar’s suite in particular provided string noises of sumptuous polish.
In the second half sailed a ship overseas to Scandinavia and America. The orchestra, by now demonstrating a more subtle consonance with details such as vibrato and bow-lengths, formed Grieg’s two perfect miniatures perfectly, and a surprisingly brisk Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber allowed not a whiff of indulgence. The expert presence of the chamber players of ConTempo reminded the audience of the piece’s origins as a movement from Barber’s own string quartet, and the piece’s rhetorical gestures to seascapes from Virgil (mentioned in informative programme notes by Aidan Thompson) were sometimes audible in recurrent waves of sound.
The concert concluded with a triumphant sea-journey home. Featuring the joy if not the style of Bach’s double violin concerto, Bill Whelan’s Inishlacken suite is no masterpiece but makes an energetic and effective piece for similar forces. Out front stand two solo string players, except here the Irish fiddle, with a warm guest performance from Lynda O’Connor, complemented the concert violin of Bogdan Sofei, the orchestra’s outstanding co-principal. The contrast in this Galway premiere came down to register as much as sea-salt, with some vertiginous virtuosic passages beautifully complementing the fiddle’s darker poitín tones. The same spirit was imbibed by the orchestra in a gloriously propulsive climactic dance and an ecstatic audience response, which promises Luminosa a giddy and glorious future.
Dr Adrian Paterson is Lecturer in English, NUI Galway