On the second day of the New Music Dublin Festival, an iconic and not so new contemporary figure graced the stage of the National Concert Hall. Sir Harrison Birtwistle, 80 years young, was on hand to witness a wonderful performance of his Earth Dances from 1985/1986.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle © Hanya Chlala
Sir Harrison Birtwistle
© Hanya Chlala

The NMD folder proclaimed that the festival was “back” and under new artistic directorship. Immediately, one wondered, where had it recently been? A swift investigation learned that “Living Music” was a festival in the Irish capital for many years, commencing with a phoned-in attendance by Luciano Berio just a few months prior to his death in 2003. Numerous, successful editions further and a roller coaster of funding expenditures and cuts, “living” has been replaced by “new”. This year features Sir Harrison, “Harry” to his intimates, along with conductor Nicholas Cleobury, who led the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in a clean and convincing performance of Earth Dances. This Friday matinée concert again confronted us with the contradiction between the adjective in the festival’s name and the date of the opus presented - new? 1986?

The concert itself was preceded by a charming tête á tête en plein publique between maestro Cleobury and Sir Harrison, a dialogue in which the composer himself stressed the relationship between music and time: “Time changes music in the sense of how I remember it… I hear wounds that you do not; some wounds are gone and others have come up… If I did it again, I could write a better one, but you just have to get on to the next thing.”

The performance was certainly clean, convincing and even angular, with great trumpet playing, very good percussion, and warm, alert strings. Yet due to the festival context and the live interview, the discrepancy between the festival’s name and the program could not be dismissed. It became a distraction even, the only blemish on the good musicianship on display. Granted, Earth Dances sounded fresh, exciting and rich. It is a wonderful piece of orchestral music. But where do we go from (t)here? That was the haunting question on the second day of a festival that should celebrate work of the present and next generation, not that of an established composer. As Sir Harrison himself stated: “We have to get on to the next thing”. I trust that the next edition of New Music Dublin will truly champion the new.