The exclusitivity and pretentiousness of Irish festivals

WHEN IAN BROAD moved the 1972 Dublin Arts Festival into the Liberties area he achieved two major developpments in the Irish arts scene: "arts" and "community" found common ground, and 'festival' took on a meaning which it had probably not deserved since the early days of the Dublin Theatre Festiival.

The Dublin Arts Festival has of course motored into more stagnant waters since then, although its environnmental interests have been boosted this year by the scandal over Wood Quay. Festivals in general, however, are innclined to adopt the name without necesssarily justifying it in their programme.

The recent "Festival in Great Irish Houses" is a case in point: ten years ago Desmond Guinness, enterprising cham-

pion and prime mover of the Irish Georrgian Society, and David Laing, posh music impresario, joined forces to hold chamber music concerts in magnificant houses for small audiences with enough money to pay for elitism and insufficcient musical sense to detect shoddy merrchandise.

Year after year Laing has pulled the rabbit - or the rubbish - out of the hat, the high point being last year's appearrance by Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin, yet he has done it by the skin of his teeth and the luck of the gods because, apart from the lure of the ever widening net of Great Houses - this year including Pakenham Hall, or Tullynally Castle as it is now called, and Russsborough (where he now resides as careetaker) - the musical content of the

'festival' has been negligible. Star turns by the Tortelier family and other varrious imported ensembles in recent years (no better than those available here) may have appealed to the tourist audiiences whose package tours include this important glimpse of European culture, but as far as its significance as an Irish musical event is concerned it might as well not take place.

In other words, anyone prepared to drive off to the second-rate delights offered in these places must be an inncredible snob or someone interested enough in the interiors to sit through some very boring musical programmes, often quite indifferently performed.

'Festival' is a variable term. Even Kilkenny Arts Week, the most successsful 'festival' in the country although it does not use the name, is stretching a 'week' to mean nine days. Festival orrganisers should ask themselves: 1 their series of events have a unifying theme or identity? 2. Is the purpose or raison d'etre of the festival clearly set out? 3. Are the events themselves of a uniformly excellent standard? 4. Are the resources available being used to the fullest and most appropriate extent?

Some years ago Anthony LewissCrosby organised a Mozart festival in Dublin, consisting of a number of conncerts featuring music by Mozart among other composers. So what? As a ruse to draw attention to a commercial underrtaking which might otherwise have gone almost unnoticed it was partially successsful but it was artistically fraudulent and in the long term possibly damaging to the organisers and participants.

The Belfast Festival, which had its heyday under the direction of Michael Emerson in the late sixties, and has since declined under David Laing and Michael Barnes, never, to my mind, offered more than a collection of arts events taking place at the same time in the same location.

What is wrong with that? Why should not audiences have the opportunity to be intensely satisfied during a week or a fortnight instead of sporadically satissfied throughout the year?

The only answer is by arguing from the specific to the general. The Dublin Festival of Twentieth Century Music is at present a biennial event devoted purely to works written in this century. Its scope is thus enormous, from classics (Rachmaninov), accepted revolutionnaries (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, now referred to as 'Second Viennese School'), respectable foreign post-war composers, to well-established Irish writers Boydell, Victory, Bodley, Kinsella, Wilson, Potter (many of whom are on the board of management of the fesstival)" - and then most unwelcome close encounters of the penultimate kind with untutored, craftless triers, mostly shameeless young Irishmen.

Each festival in recent years has featured the work of one or more major international figures this year Lutoslawski, Peter Maxwell Davies, Panufnik, in 1975 Messiaen. If these festivals have lived in the memory it is because of outstanding performances such as Messiaen's "Turangalila' Symmphony or Heinrich Schiff in Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto or some years ago Kyung Wha Chung in Berg's Violin Concerto.

Well, last month we heard an outtstanding performance of Tchaikowsky's First Piano Concerto by Andre Watts (RTESO and Pearce) but we didn't need a 'Tchaikowsky Festival' to achieve it. What then distinguishes these perforrmances of twentieth century works? Firstly, the Dublin Festival is the only festival of twentieth century music in the world which is exclusively devoted to what it says. Others feature works from other centuries: the 1976 Cardiff Contemporary Music Festival actually 'focussed' on 1. S. Bach! Secondly, the Festival offers both chaff and grain. Quite violent arguments have been known to break out over the relative merits and demerits of performers like Siegfried Behrend, the Kontarsky brothers etc., and composers like Maxwell Davies, Corcoran, Roger Doyle.

The fact that the organisers fell down on the job is reflected in the average attendance of 150-200 (boosted by a capacity house for the Lutoslawski concert), of whom half at least were fellow-travellers. This means that possibbly 75-100 people from the 'general public' attended these events. ·Apart from insufficient advertising the fault lies in poor programming. If you proggramme Rachmaninov, Corcoran, Stravinsky, Bodley, Ravel, on the same evening a goodly crowd will assemble because approximately 60% of the commposers will be immediately acceptable and a further 20% will be at least tolerrable with a little persuasion, particularly if you tell the audience in advance that the pieces don't last too long.

This year's festival was organised by Dinah Molloy, as previously, except that this year she was on part-time seconddment from her Arts Council job. This may partly account for the lack of adventurous thinking in the programme - too exclusive for the general public and too little challenge by way of workkshops and seminars, for the cognoscenti. Hopefully the new appointment of a Music Association of Ireland full-time organiser will overcome most of these problems, but the ultimate responsibility will remain with the Council of the MAl and their co-opted festival committee.

Kilkenny Arts Week succeeds for quite different reasons - and hopefully all the jokes about kite-flying will have died down before it begins in late August. This year's music programme is particularly unimaginative, except for the Claus Ocker master class, brain-child of George Vaughan. The concerts are simply copies of earlier programmes. Either the organisers have run out of ideas or they are banking on a successful formula working once again - have they considered the moral responsibility that is on them of avoiding dull repetition in the interests of a living event? Or is innternal tension forcing them to play safe?

Kilkenny however has distinguished itself over the past four years by its community spirit, evident at every corrner of the Arts Week. There is probably a greater pool of artistic talent in Kilkenny than anywhere else outside Dublin. Coupled with an intense civic awareness which has led to the restoraation of the Castle and maintenance of other important buildings, this makes Kilkenny one of the great success stories of recent years - and points the way for other towns to use the blueprint to their own advantage: Roscrea, Thurles, Castleebar, Cashel, New Ross. The community awareness is best evidenced by the shoppfront scheme - some of the best signnwriters in Ireland have been commisssioned "to demonstrate their skill in the city during Arts Week. With the coooperation of local shop-keepers, a nummber of fronts will be entirely repainted and relettered in celebration of this great Irish craft." A better example of Irish living art could not be found.

In a sense the object of Kilkenny Arts Week as far as the outsider is conncerned is to show off a good deal of civic pride. As far as the Festival in Great Irish Houses is concerned the obbject is to show off the houses. The point, in terms of festivals, is that if there are two objectives, one to promote music and/or other arts events, and the other to create an awareness of the environnment, then, unless the two can be harrmoniously wedded and bedded, the offfspring will be a very ugly duckling.

At Castletown, Russborough, etc., the object of the houses and their owners is to get in tourists who would probably not otherwise visit the places. The object of the director is to make money out of music by making use of the houses and their owners. The obbject of the musicians, probably the most mercenary of the lot, is to make a quick buck for easy work by making use of all three. That, in my opi,nion, is not a fesstival. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't be able to enjoy good music in fine surroundings. Occasionally we are vouch safed this in the Examination Hall of TCD, Kilkenny Cathedral and Castle, etc. etc., but generally the provision of facilities for live music in Ireland, as we know, is neither plentiful nor fine.

So it is refreshing to encounter fine music, if possible, in great houses, even if those houses were built as dwellings rather than concert halls.

What palls - even if the music is fine, and finely played and presented - is that the experience should be so largely exxclusive. The Menuhin brother and sister could have been presented last year to a far larger audience, if their concert had been in the RDS or the Stadium, and that audience would have been drawn from a far wider social spectrum. The occasion would have been less glamorrous but more valuable as an experience in the Irish music calendar.

What we require from our festival organisers is adventurous programming, in other words imaginative approaches to the worn out concept of a festival. Disappointing though it was in retroospect, the series of Mozart piano conncertos by Michael O'Rourke with NICO could have been built into an important Mozart festival; the disastrous Beethoven series by O'Conor with NICO last month could have been saved from the same fate but wasn't. At least in both cases it was native talent and we were not asking the foreign press to give an honest opinion of it.

We have had flexibility and new departures in recent years - the Carrolls Summer Music season centred round Colman Pearce and the Ulysses Ennsemble is a good example of large audiences for unfamiliar recent music (Twentieth Century Festival take note) and the opposition, Player Wills Celeebrity concerts, playing safer with the gorgeous Frederika von Stade and, next year, Elly Ameling, but both run the risk of growing stale - particularly Carrolls, which has hit on the formula of the "acceptable avante-garde" of other years. A successful formula works once. Repitition in itself is a new challenge which organisers can seldom meet.

The next Killarney Bach Festival is the most depressing example. Eight years ago an American visitor, George Manos, who has about as much connducting ability as Andre Prieur (and you can take that remark exactly as you wish) persuaded Mrs. Ina O'Connor of Killarney to start a Bach festival, of which he is still director. This festival has enormous potential if it could find a new director, make the programme more flexible, give the committee someething to think about, and involve the community in music-making and. all the ancillary activities that make up a Festival. But if you want Bach (JS, JC, WF, CPE) badly done in uncomfortable surroundings amid some of Europe's most outstanding natural scenery, then 7 -9 July in Killarney is the time and place to suffer.

You can't prohibit the use of the word 'festival', you can't impose standdards or an Arts Council gauleiter to oversee developments. In the long term the public gets the festival it deserves. If it can listen to the 'Tullynally Trio', the 'Castletown Consort', the Testore Orchestra, the Audrey Park Ensemble, and Uncle Tom Cobley etc., and not realise that music in Ireland is played by a handful of chancers under a handdful of names, then any entrepreneur preepared to stick his neck out and sell mutton dressed up as lamb or a sheep in wolf's clothing is entitled to get away with it.