This quiet town in County Wexford is certainly an out-of-the-way venue for a major piano festival. The nearest airport, Waterford, is so small that you can easily absently-mindedly wander through passport control without knowing you have done so until you see the provincial station-style sandwich bar on the other side. Then you have to either get a taxi, or – better option – hire a car to reach New Ross itself.
Tourist attractions include a full-scale replica of the
Dunbrody Ship, now a museum commemorating the passengers who sailed on her from
New Ross to escape devastating famine and start a new life in the States in the
mid-19th century. Today much of New Ross consists of terraced housing from the
1970s which has seen better days, albeit exuding a quiet pride with its tidy
streets. Yet this is the setting for what is now a rising international piano
festival – indeed so relatively new is the festival that when I asked my hotel
reception desk for directions to the festival’s main venue, St Mary’s Church, I
was sent to the impressive-looking but wrong church, St Mary and St Michael.
St Mary’s itself is an attractive church, high on a hill
overlooking New Ross, restored in the nave of a once even larger 13th-century
church – the ruined chancel and transepts can be seen outside. Inside is a warm
acoustic, an excellent Steinway piano (the reason the festival was set up in
the first place) and seating for around 350 occupied by a warm, appreciative
audience from all around southern Ireland and increasingly from overseas too.
This is Ireland’s only piano festival, founded in 2006 by a
group of local music enthusiasts. Organising a concert, they were faced with
the expense of hiring a decent concert grand and decided to make good use of
it: why not hire it over several days and hold a piano festival? Dublin-born
pianist Finghin Collins agreed to become artistic director. He can be seen not
only performing at a number of concerts but his tall, willowy figure can also
be seen regularly spending time meeting members of the audience during the
intervals and after concerts.
Quite apart from the excellent venue and piano, there is a
sense of a happy family-style community, musicians and their hosts mingling
together in what seems to be endless rounds of post-evening concert parties
with delicious food and drink. In this relaxed atmosphere you can really feel
the pianists give of their best. In 2010 there were striking performances by
the Chinese pianist Sa Chen and the Czech Libor Novácek (who gave a spine-tingling
and in my experience unsurpassed performance of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an
Exhibition). An unusual feature of the festival’s programming is that each
day’s main concert features not a solo artist, but three different performers
in succession. This year there’s a further spin in that the main feature will
be piano duos, so the main concerts will each feature three pairs of pianists.
And the music-making spills over into the town itself, not
least due to the festival’s distribution of "play me" uprights around the
streets, inviting passers-by to have a go. I spent a very pleasant lunch seated
al fresco in the street, munching locally bought pasta while pianist Colm
O’Brien entertained us on an upright with Scott Joplin and Gershwin. This
proved to be a warm-up to an impromptu concert in which members of the audience
were invited to play their party pieces, ranging from a young boy playing “Für
Elise” to a music teacher letting his hair down with Kinks songs. My hotel
receptionist might not have been there – she may have got lost following her
own directions – but here I felt was a festival which not only reaches out to
the local townspeople, but one which the town genuinely embraces.
Five musical highlights
Beginning on 22 September, the opening "fanfare" concert of the 2011 New Ross Piano Festival is
free, and features Kathryn Stott and Noriko Ogawa performing Saint-Saëns’s
Carnival of the Animals in its original chamber scoring.
A most enticing lunchtime concert on 24 September – Charles
Owen and Katya Apekisheva play Brahms’s Haydn Variations, Milhaud’s
exhilarating Scaramouche and Ravel’s dramatic La valse.
Here is one for more adventurous spirits: Finghin Collins and
Charles Owen premiere a specially commissioned work by Stephen Gardner; then
Enrico Pace and Igor Roma perform Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and
High spirits for the final concert of the 2011 festival on
25 Sept: Stott and Ogawa play Lutoslawski’s
Paganini Rhapsody, and Collins and Owen perform Poulenc’s Sonata for Two
Founded in 1951, this festival down the
road from New Ross runs 21 Oct to 5 Nov. This year features rare operas, a
double bill of one act operas by Menotti and Bernstein, Puccini’s Gianni
Schicchi as well as recitals and an orchestral concert.
The article 'Musical destinations: New Ross, Ireland' was published in partnership with BBC Music magazine.