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Máirtín O’Connor, Cathal Hayden, Garry O’Briain & ConTempo Quartet @ The Ulster Museum


The metaphoric symbolism of traditional musicians performing inside a museum wasn’t lost on button accordionist Máirtín O’Connor, fiddler Cathal Hayden and bouzouki player Garry O’Briain. “Someone will put a friggin’ glass case over us – fossils of folk,” quips O’Connor, the former De Danana and Boys of the Lough alumnus, to much laughter. “We’ll sit here for the rest of our days.”

In such an unlikely event, the Ulster Museum would be exhibiting the wrong musicians, for despite deep roots in Irish folk music, O’Connor, Hayden and O’Briain have, over the course of forty plus years, embraced all manner of influences from reggae, boogie, soul and beyond, injecting new vocabulary into the Irish traditional idiom and courting new audiences.

This evening’s union with Romanian classical ensemble ConTempo Quartet (pictured) – a collaboration dating back fourteen years – is further proof of the trio’s openness to musical adventure, and provides fascinating insight into the common ground shared between European classical and folk music traditions.

A concert of two halves begins with Galway-based ConTempo Quartet. Violinists Bogdan Sofei and Ingrid Nicola, violist Andreea Banciu and cellist Adrian Mantu have been playing together since 1995, and whilst firmly schooled in classical traditions, have been known to bring a fresh lick of paint to songs by U2, Philip Glass and Thin Lizzy.

It’s with an exuberant rendition of the finale of Antonin Dvořák’s ‘American Suite’, however, that the quartet pounces into life – exuding an energy seldom associated with chamber ensembles. A sprightly performance of Johann Strauss’ ‘Pizzicato Polka’ is followed by a six-part Transylvanian dance suite by Béla Bartók – vignettes, achingly lyrical and dizzyingly up-tempo in turn.

The thread connecting ConTempo Quartet’s interpretations of the celebrated Czech, Austrian and Hungarian composers’ compositions is the folkloric vernacular, from New World colors to Old World popular rhythms –  some the staple of Viennese ballrooms, others the kindling  of passions in villages across the Balkans.

The Irish musicians then claim the stage, breezing through a number of lively sets with accordion and fiddle in unison for the most part. The serene fiddle air ‘The Mountains of Pomeroy’ contrasts with the urgency of O’Connor’s ‘The Road West’, a sunny romp with the accordionist at his most beguiling.

ConTempo Quartet returns to swell the ranks, the septet’s elegant rendition of Turlough O’Carolan’s ‘Mrs Crofton’ very much in the chamber tradition. A traditional Transylvanian dance and the animated ‘Spiccato Junction’ close the first half of the concert on a heady note. The group’s raggedy bow is at odds with its note-perfect unison playing, which is, perhaps, just a little too tidy to be genuinely bold.

The guts of second half draws from the septet’s one and only recording to date. ‘The Bachs from Oranmore’ and ‘The Wind in The Woods’ fuse baroque with traditional folk, a practise commonplace in jazz but less so in Irish traditional circles, and the seams between the styles and the centuries are evident. ‘If it’s baroque don’t fix it’ puns O’Connor, though a little more mischievous meddling wouldn’t go amiss.

All seven are reading from the same folkloric hymn sheet on ‘Men’s Dance’ – a Romanian fertility dance that starts off sedately enough before spiraling manically in ever-faster repeating circles – a youngsters dance if ever there was. The elegant ‘Locatelli’s Trip to Lough Atlia’ pays vibrant, Bach-esque homage to Italian baroque composer Pietro Locatelli.

Hayden sits out the O’Briain-penned ‘Elusion’, a tango-flavored ballad. Strings play atmospheric counterpoint to accordion on a delightful tune that could have come from Astor Piazzola’s songbook. It’s the least virtuoso number of the evening and also the most emotionally affecting.

The jaunty bourrée ‘O’Carolan’s Concerto’ provides arguably the most seamless fusion of folkloric and baroque styles, which is perhaps no surprise given that –  some sources say – it was written by the Irish harpist sometime between the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

An energetic set climaxes with the epic dramaturgy of ‘Rain of Light’, which juxtaposes sweeping melodicism with rhythmic gravitas. The audience musters just enough energy to summon an encore, and just as well, for the breezy  ’The Queen of Sheba’ –an old De Dannan tune that stands on the shoulders of George Frideric Handel – rounds off the evening on a high.

The final bows are, once more, fairly shambolic, but that’s okay. After all, a little anarchy in the midst of otherwise perfect orchestration is usually more than welcome. Ian Patterson