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Irish Music in the Concert Hall: Camerata Ireland at Zankel Hall

Camerata Ireland with Barry Douglas, 3/5/24

Growing up in a proud Irish-American family, I am an unapologetic fan of all things Irish: the food, the literature, the craic. And, especially the music: a high-spirited blend of bodhráns, flutes and fiddles, usually played around a table filled with pints of Guinness. And, while nothing compares to hearing live music in Ireland, there's no shortage of quality Irish music right here in NYC, with more than a dozen regular seisúns across the five boroughs (shout out to Hartley's in Clinton Hill.)

But 25 years ago, Belfast native Barry Douglas, winner of the 1986 Tchaikovsky piano competition, decided it was time to think more broadly about Irish music and where it fits within the western musical tradition. With the ink barely dry from the Good Friday Agreement, Douglas founded Camerata Ireland in 1999 with an ambitious agenda to perform both classical and traditional Irish music with some two dozen musicians drawn from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (similar to Daniel Barenboim's West-East Divan Orchestra, which began performing in the same year.)

Douglas brought Camerata Ireland to Carnegie's Zankel Hall last night with a program that showcased both aspects of their musical mission. The first half of the concert was devoted to the classical repertoire, with Douglas conducting from the piano. Eimear McGeown, a two-time All Ireland winner on the Irish flute from County Armagh, opened with a concerto for flute and strings (1814) by little-known Italian composer Saverio Mercadante, a contemporary of Donizetti and Bellini. Though it was a light, Mozartian piffle, McGeown played brilliantly, effortlessly tackling the ornamental solos. The same, unfortunately, couldn't be said for the strings, which to my ears lacked shape and tone. Perhaps it was their distinct Irish style of bowing (or is it fiddling?), or maybe I still had the magic of the Vienna Philharmonic ringing in my ears, but there was a distinct lack of blend here which I just couldn't get over. 

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A Gathering of Friends: Kronos Quartet Celebrates 50 Years at Carnegie Hall

Kronos Quartet 50th Anniversary at Carnegie Hall, 11/3/23

"I could live to be 500, and I don’t think I’d run out of things to do in music." - David Harrington

Unlike rock bands such as the Rolling Stones or The Who, a 50th anniversary isn't unheard of in the world of string quartets. The Emerson Quartet just played its final shows after 47 years; the Juilliard Quartet is still going strong well into its ninth decade (though without any of its original members.)

So, on its surface, Friday night's concert at Carnegie Hall celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Kronos Quartet wasn't really remarkable. Until you stop to think about all that they've accomplished in that half-century: some fifty studio and soundtrack recordings, more than 1,000 commissions of new works, countless performances across six continents (including 43 at Carnegie Hall alone), collaborations with everyone from Steve Reich to Sigur Rós.

"They have changed the way we see string quartets, and altered the course of music history, forever." WNYC host John Schaefer declared during his onstage introduction. 

Founded in Seattle in 1973 by first violinist and artistic director David Harrington (whom I interviewed backstage at the Big Ears Festival back in 2015), Kronos added John Sherba (violin) and Hank Dutt (viola) after moving to San Francisco in 1977. All three remain, along with cellist Paul Wiancko, who joined the quartet earlier this year, replacing Sunny Wang. Paul has somehow already made it into an updated version of Sam Green's Kronos documentary "A Thousand Thoughts," an excerpt of which was screened. The film sought to explain Harrington's ceaseless crate digging, his never-ending quest to find the next novel sound, regardless of genre or background.  

"We haven't yet found the bulletproof piece of music that can wrap itself around us," he said in a voiceover. "But I think it's possible, and I spend every minute of my waking life trying to find it. That's our job."

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Summer 2022 Live Music Preview: Out of Town

Tanglewood Shed(all photos by Pete Matthews)
In addition to all of the summer music happenings in NYC, things are finally getting back to normal at the festivals and amphitheaters out of town, many of which have been dormant - or half-baked - for the past two years. Here are some of the things worth a trip:

Tanglewood (July 1-Aug. 28) Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andris Nelsons spends four full weeks in the Berkshires this summer, performing everything from Brahms' German Requiem to a concert performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Other highlights include Garrick Ohlsson performing Brahms' complete piano music (Aug. 16-25), a John Williams 90th birthday celebration (Aug. 20), and a new opera by George Benjamin (Aug. 8) performed by the TMC fellows - who also gave the U.S. premiere of his Written on Skin in 2013.

Caramoor (June 30-Aug. 19) The elegant Westchester estate offers one of the most diverse festivals in the northeast - and only an hour's drive north of NYC. Spanning classical, jazz, opera, and new music, highlights include the world premiere of Michael Gordon's “Field of Vision” (July 24), a day-long jazz festival (July 30), Handel's rarely performed opera Theodora (July 31), and appearances by Brian Stokes Mitchell (July 9), Shemekia Copeland (July 29) and Angelique Kidjo (Aug 6).

Bard SummerScape (June 24-Aug. 14) Among this year's offerings at Bard's Fisher Center is Richard Strauss' rarely performed comic opera The Silent Woman (July 22-31) and the 32nd annual Bard Music Festival (Aug. 5-14), dedicated to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff. In the Spiegeltent, which is back open for the first time since 2019, offerings include Nona Hendryx (July 1), the George Gee Swing Orchestra (July 10) and roots rocker Martha Redbone (July 30).

Glimmerglass Festival (July 8-Aug. 21) The northeast's leading summer opera festival presents both the tried and true (CarmenThe Sound of Music) and the new (The Jungle Book, Taking Up Serpents/Holy GroundThe Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson) on the shores of Lake Otsego, just down the road from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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