Gaels aloud – An interview with Triocca Ensemble

by Derek Lim

This article first appeared in Time Out Singapore
Gaels aloud :: Features :: Music :: Time Out Singapore

The Triocca ensemble unites three nationalities and three unlikely instruments to make classical music. Fortunately, it works, says Derek Lim

What do you get when you put three ladies – one English, one Irish and one Northern Irish – in a room together? Ten years ago, the answer might have been ‘acrimonious exchanges and flying teacups’, but today you’re far more likely to hear laughter, tinkling wine glasses and beautiful music, courtesy of chamber music ensemble, the Triocca Trio.

Formed in 2003, the trio – made up of Riona Ó Duinnínn (Northern Irish, flute), Geraldine O’Doherty (Irish, harp) and Nancy Johnson (English, viola) – impressed a panel of judges in Ireland last year with their colourful performances, beautifully melodic playing and sensitive phrasing. Triocca was consequently selected by the national agency Music Network Ireland as one of its only two awardees for its Young Musicwide Programme, a development award that includes performance opportunities, a professional support package and publicity campaign, as well as a specially commissioned work by an Irish composer.

Far more interesting than their individual heritage, though, is their combination of instruments. In chamber music, the most common ensemble is the string quartet (two violins, a viola and a cello), followed by the piano trio (violin, cello and piano), both of which come to mind when you mention a chamber ensemble. Triocca’s combination of flute, harp and viola is intriguing and refreshing, but also downright rare. So how did this unusual formation come about?

‘Riona was born in Northern Ireland, so she could play in both the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, which is where we met, as well as the Irish Youth Orchestra, which is where she got to know Geraldine. Geraldine and I had become good friends with Riona separately for many years without having met each other,’ Johnson explains. ‘But one day Riona was asked to do a recital in Galway [Ireland], and she decided she’d put some chamber music in it, so since we were such good friends and we’d always talked about how we’d like to play together, she asked me if I’d like to go over and help out. And she also asked her friend Geraldine, so straight from the airport the three of us went off for rehearsal. We had a great time and we realised we just loved playing together, so that’s how it started.’

One might expect an Irish chamber music trio to play music of the sort that could be heard in Riverdance. To be sure, Ó Duinnínn and O’Doherty are very much in tune with their rich heritage – all six of Ó Duinnínn’s siblings play traditional Irish music, and O’Doherty started off on the Celtic harp. But as is the case with any respectable chamber music group, classical composers rather than traditional Irish ones are responsible for writing their varied repertoire. Their playlist includes the most famous work for their combination, Debussy’s ‘Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp’, written in 1915 – an Impressionist work written at the height of the great French composer’s powers. Cast in three movements, it demonstrates his ability to pit these disparate instruments against each other.

In fact, classical music has only very recently been actively promoted in Ireland. ‘We’ve always had a really rich traditional music history, and that’s where the cultural focus was,’ O’Doherty says. ‘Classical music education only came to prominence in the twentieth century, and then it was the preserve of the wealthier classes, which at that time would have been the Anglo-Irish Protestant community. Ireland was just not previously a wealthy enough country for music education to be a priority.’

Though Ireland has yet to produce a classical composer of comparable stature to its great poets and authors – WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde – its lush countryside, natural beauty and rich sense of tradition attracted one who could be considered Irish in all but birth, the sensitive English composer Arnold Bax. Bax absorbed the culture, learnt the language and even wrote poems in Irish under a pseudonym, finding inspiration in the Emerald Isle’s dreamy mythology and Celtic tales. In 1916, he lost several friends in the bloody Easter Rising, which would later lead to the Irish War of Independence. ‘Though he was himself British, his sympathies were with the Irish,’ says O’Doherty. ‘This led him to write his ‘Elegiac Trio’ for flute, harp and viola, in memorial to the people who died in that rebellion.’ Gently melancholic and deeply moving, this ethereal piece begins with shimmering harp arpeggios joined by luminous viola and flute solos. It is one of Triocca’s favourite works, and they will play it in Singapore.

Because of the limited number of works written for their combination, Triocca have had to borrow music originally written for other ensembles and rearrange it for their repertoire. ‘We’ve found that Telemann trios, for example, work really well,’ Johnson says. ‘Geraldine, who’s a bit of a genius in transcription, has also transcribed some Astor Piazzolla [an Argentinian composer best known for his tangos] for our trio. Sometimes we’ll split up as well, to perform as a duo. For example, Geraldine and I play a piece by Benjamin Britten called ‘Lacrymae’ [originally written for viola and piano], where the piano is replaced by a harp. And there are lots of fl ute and harp pieces.’

In addition, they play a lot of modern music that has been written for them by contemporary composers – for example, music by the Irish pianist and composer Philip Martin. Occasionally, existing works are updated for the combination. For instance, the inventive and accessible Irish composer Eric Sweeney wrote a piece for flute and harp in 2002, ‘Walk/ Don’t Walk’, which he recently update

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