Luminosa bringing light out of darkness

At the Luminosa string orchestra concert series "bláthú flourishing" in St. Nicholas Church were L-R Graciela Loftus, Jana Novotna, Victoria Rudenko and Tammy O'Leary, Moycullen. Photo Sean Lydon

At the Luminosa string orchestra concert series "bláthú flourishing" in St. Nicholas Church were L-R Graciela Loftus, Jana Novotna, Victoria Rudenko and Tammy O'Leary, Moycullen. Photo Sean Lydon

The latest radiant concert from Galway’s own orchestra, Luminosa, began with late evening sun still streaming through the windows into St Nicholas’s Church. It seemed a fitting metaphor to illuminate the latest in their concert series, bláthú, flourishing with the coming of spring.

The poet Ezra Pound developed an influential theory about art (he also had theories about economics and politics, but that’s another matter ). He concluded that despite the indifference and degradations of time, art had an aptitude for survival. The scholar’s task was to discover it and to reassemble its fragments, the translator’s and performer’s to make it visible and audible, the critic’s job really only to highlight its ‘luminous details’. What this required was a few prepared to believe in art’s survival, and thereby bring light from out of the darkness.

Light was everywhere visible in this concert, conjured once again by an unparallelled skill in programming, and increasingly in playing, from Luminosa. This is an orchestra that is going places, with direction and purpose. That requires audiences to go with them – and here, joyfully, they did. The achievement was almost synaesthetic: through the medium of sound, a focus on luminous details wrought light, colour, and the finest of touches, all out of exquisite variations in musical texture.

A master of such variations was the Italian concert master Antonio Vivaldi. Although he played an important role in church services, Vivaldi was extraordinarily prolific as a secular composer, composing nearly 50 operas and over 500 concertos surviving in manuscript, many still barely known. These pieces maintain an astonishingly high standard, especially when it comes to string writing: as a violinist himself his expectations for his players was also very high.

The soloists for Vivaldi’s Concerto for 3 violins in F major, Paul Ezergailis, Bogdan Sofei, and Brigid Leman matched this expectation and each other, each providing a distinctive sound but also the musical sympathy to blend together, especially in the slow second movement where only their three voices were heard over the solo cello continuo.

Hearing these passages played so lucidly it started to seem obvious where Bach’s Double Violin Concerto borrowed its melodic interweaving.


Meanwhile the outer movements fizzed with melodic and harmonic innovation, magical unprepared transitions vaulted with brio. It seems extraordinary that this piece was nearly lost, surviving only in a manuscript copy made by German composer Johann Pisendel, held at the Saxony State Library in Dresden.

As it happens Ezra Pound’s Canto 75 features a set of similar survivals rescued by the composer Gerhart Münch from ‘out of Phlegethon’, brought as it were out of Dresden’s wartime burning by incendiary bombs, his skilful hands conjuring anew old music. Pound’s Canto even concludes with a handwritten part from Münch’s arrangement of Clement Janequin’s Chant des oiseaux (the song of the birds ), as performed by Pound’s partner, the violinist Olga Rudge, who herself pioneered the excavation, editing, and performance of Vivaldi manuscripts in Italy. Through such heroic acts, says Pound, art lives, and we can still hear the music of the birds.

Artistic survivals then are perilous; and to flourish art needs creative interpreters. Pound had begun his translation of an ancient Chinese poem by Mei Sheng with the extraordinary line, ‘Blue, blue is the grass about the river’ – a radical defamiliarization inspired by the source material, the Chinese ideogram standing for both blue and green, modified by context. Interpreted creatively art can adapt to new contexts, and find new audiences.

Pound’s theory of artistic survival, even in time of war, was exemplified in a new version of Ina Boyle’s String Quartet No. 3 in E minor (1934 ), arranged for string orchestra by the players themselves. The execution of this bold idea happened one suspects under the guidance of the ConTempo String Quartet, whose players sometimes took solo parts to contrast with broader all-strings passages.

Such arrangements are not unprecendented. From the same period, Samuel Barber’s now-famous Adagio for Strings, for instance, was borrowed from a middle movement of his Op. 11 String Quartet. More recently and locally conceived, this arrangement opened up Boyle’s piece anew. Whether by association or design, heard via these larger forces, the music’s modal tonalities irresistably pointed to landscape.

But which landscape? Although some of the English pastoral tonalities of her sometime teacher Ralph Vaughan Williams seeped in, Boyle lived most of her life on an estate in Co. Wicklow, looking after her father, something which no doubt contributed to her neglect after the Second World War, her pieces unplayed and unpublished. Given this background, it is perhaps no surprise that the colours and contours of the piece at times suggested a richer, lusher, even dare one say it bluer grass – while at other times evoking the heathers and pale hillsides of the Wicklow hills.

Study in juxtapositions

Although hardly modernist, within its parameters the piece is harmonically adventurous, an emphasis on fourths and fifths allowing minor chords to turn to majors, as at the close of the second movement. Played this expanded way it provided a remarkable study in juxtapositions, not only of changing chords but changing textures, solo viola held taut against the freezing winds of shivering lower strings.

Igor Stravinsky spent the Second World War in exile in America, eventually becoming a citizen in 1946. The title of his Concerto in D (1946 ) suggests some kind of private newly-naturalized joke. Having no soloist, the piece is not really a concerto, except in a pre-Vivaldi sense, and not really in D either. Certainly it is not squarely in D major: any unabashed major triads tend to come in other keys, and even the final D chord has some other notes thrown in.

This dryer Stravinsky is not the Stravinsky of the incendiary Russian ballets, but neither does the word ‘neoclassical’ cover what is going on during this reflective period.

His fellow American Pound was never convinced of the merits of the thumping ‘pye-ano’. As a skilled performer Stravinsky often composed at the piano, but this piece showcased his sense for the precise timbres of strings.

These timbres were brought out adroitly by the orchestra, which produced a different sound-world for each movement, delicately inserting the most tonally-comforting parts of the second movement as if by tweezers – music in quotation marks which seems to anticipate the surface textures and playful borrowings of postmodernism.

Yet played like this these different musics were not without feeling: if its Romantic touches became at times deliberately hoarse, a romance of heavy breathing rather than open declaration, such forlorn post-war gestures were wonderfully affecting.

Unabashedly Romantic in all senses, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C was undoubtedly the most familiar item in the programme, its big vibrato sound allowing the ensemble to play with the grandest expression.

Aidan Thomson’s illuminating programme notes described the piece as a warhorse of the string orchestra repertoire. Here it was ridden very well. If early on every detail was not absolutely precise, horse and rider were perhaps getting used to each other.

Guest Conductor Christopher George did a fine job varying the tempi, holding back the reins, with nicely exaggerated rallentandos allowing air into the piece, before it was released into a tempo gallops of propulsive energy. By the last couple of movements the first and second violins were literally lifted out of their seats in order to match the wrought expressiveness of the lower strings, the three violas dipping into velvet melodies, the three cellos reaching plangently all the way down to their lowest rung, an open C.

As the piece closed with an emphatic ricorso, again the listener was struck by the extraordinary variety of textures in-between. It seemed almost inconceivable how the same small group of players could produce such different sounds in one concert. Yet there was no cheating, no special effects, no smuggling in of woodwinds, just an outstanding exposition of technical skill and musical sensitivity.

After a standing ovation, the encore returned the audience to the giocosely sad musings of Stravinsky’s second movement, a wryly sincere conclusion to a concert that showcased an orchestra of light and colour, flourishing.


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