NSO, visiting artists launch Kennedy Center’s ‘Ireland 100’

NSO, visiting artists launch Kennedy Center’s ‘Ireland 100’

Three-week KenCen music, drama and dance fest honors the Centennial of Ireland’s Easter Uprising. U.S. Veep Joe Biden, Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny attend.

William Close, tuning the Earth Harp in the Kennedy Center's Hall of States for "Ireland 100." (Photo by Terry Ponick)

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2016 – The Kennedy Center launched its 2016 “Ireland 100” festival Tuesday evening with an evening gala concert by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. They were joined by some of the many Irish performing artists who will be participating in concerts, plays and various events at the KenCen over the next three weeks.

An additional treat, currently laid out throughout the Hall of States, greeted Tuesday audiences arriving for events in all the Center’s performing spaces: the amazing “Earth Harp.”

Both an art installation and a musical instrument springing from the mind of inventor-performer William Close, the Earth Harp is, well… a massive, configurable set of harp strings whose pitch and ambience will vary depending on where each installation is constructed. In this case, the stringing of the current Earth Harp runs from one end of the Hall of States to the other, producing an unearthly, haunting, shimmering sound audiences will enjoy during the entire festival. (Check link below for times and details.)

Ireland’s Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. (Image via Wikipedia entry on Irish government)
Ireland’s Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. (Image via Wikipedia entry on Irish government)

Regarding the opening concert itself, many audience members were startled Tuesday evening by the security setup outside the Concert Hall, which resembled the check-in apparatus (and lines) at Dulles Airport. That was a clear tip-off that very special guests were expected. And indeed, both Vice President Joe Biden and Ireland’s Taoiseach,* Enda Kenny, did make an appearance, albeit a fashionably late one, moving the opening festivities half an hour later than scheduled.

That said, the evening’s opening formalities were tastefully handled by David Rubenstein, the current Kennedy Center chairman and a notable benefactor of its performing arts programs and ensembles.

In addition to welcoming the visiting Irish performers and notable guests, Mr. Rubenstein’s introductory remarks included a look back on the history of President John F. Kennedy, whose strong, gold-standard support for the arts during his brief time in office here is still well worth recalling. Mr. Rubenstein also commented on Kennedy’s close ties with his ancestral homeland, before introducing the Vice President—another American with notably Irish ancestry—as well as the Taoiseach.

Mr. Biden’s remarks were brief, nostalgic and—even in this election year—blessedly and appropriately devoid of politics, as he affirmed America’s longstanding ties with Ireland as well as this country’s still-remarkable percentage of citizens both ordinary and prominent who remain proud of their Irish ancestry.

For his part, Mr. Kenny commented elegantly on the literary and artistic traditions of Ireland, demonstrating the kind of deep and intimate knowledge of both that Americans could do well to emulate today. Like the Vice President, he also acknowledged the continuing close ties between our two countries.

After the evening’s formal opening, the actual gala concert got underway, as the NSO, under the baton of Irish guest conductor David Brophy, began with a spirited performance of an excerpt from Bill Whelan’s “Connemara Suite,” crisply assisted by Irish-style dancer Colin Dunne and Irish fiddler Liz Knowles.

Fiona Shaw, a notable director and Irish actress, then stepped in and served as master of ceremonies for the remainder of the evening, introducing and occasionally performing throughout the evening.

Next on tap was a most welcome blast from the past, the spirited overture to the operetta “Eileen,” by Victor Herbert. Born in Dublin, this Irish-American composer eventually moved to New York in the late 19th century, where he soon became one of the most popular composers of American light opera.

Sadly, Herbert’s music is rarely performed today, though Boomers might still remember some of the tunes from his 1903 “Babes in Toyland,” which were popularized in a 1961 Disney film of the same title—a very loose adaptation of the original. His overture to “Eileen” was written in the same style, snappy, noisy, celebratory and alternating quick step march tunes with romantic interludes. The NSO seemed to have a great deal of fun performing it.

Other highlights of this mostly musical event included an aria from Michael Balfe’s Italian opera “Falstaff,” sung brilliantly by Irish mezzo Tara Erraught; a trio of Irish (Uilleann) pipers, whose music interacted with Ms. Shaw’s and Irish actor Louis Lovett’s narrations; a performance of John Field’s touching Nocturne No. 5 in B-flat Major by well-known Irish pianist and choral director Barry Douglas; a nice arrangement (by British composer Benjamin Britten) of the traditional tune “Down by the Salley Gardens,” sung by star Irish tenor Anthony Kearns; a dramatic reading by Ms. Shaw of “Easter, 1916,” W.B. Yeats’ famous poem commemorating modern Ireland’s founding revolution in this the 100th anniversary of that uprising; a video clip of JFK’s speech to the Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament; and a hauntingly beautiful a cappella rendition (albeit accompanied by the NSO) of a traditional Irish tune by well-known traditional Irish vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird.

The program wrapped up with the NSO’s vigorous performance of the “Firedance” from the popular “Riverdance Suite,” once again with Irish dancer Colin Dunne.

As a preview of the main event, this was a successful evening that accomplished what it set out to do: provide an appetizer for the KenCen’s ongoing “Ireland 100” Festival.

The Festival’s list of events, including plays, music, readings and dance is extensive and ticket prices range from free to modestly priced.

For a complete schedule of events, including links to each performance and additional links for online ticket purchases, visit the Kennedy Center’s special “Ireland 100” web page.

*NOTE: Approximate pronunciation: TEE-shuck. The Irish language equivalent for “head of government” or “Prime Minister.”

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