Ireland's most eminent contributions to music have been a tenor, a critic and a song -- respectively, John McCormack, George Bernard Shaw and "Danny Boy." Since the first two were unavailable last night, the New Irish Chamber Orchestra ended with the latter in its Kennedy Center debut concert.
It was a lovely little touch for this small ensemble (only 16 players), which makes up in congeniality what it lacks in virtuosity. And the audience in the virtually full Terrace Theater -- including a disproportionate number who were apparently of Gaelic lineage -- ate it up, "Danny Boy" in particular.
Oddly, there was no Irish music on the main program, which was dominated by Mozart. And the Mozart both provided the evening's high point and illustrated the limitations of the orchestra, conducted by Proinnsias O'Duinn.
The grand moment was a glowing, graceful performance of the Mozart Ninth Piano Concerto in E flat, K. 271, with young Irish pianist John O'Coner the elegant, ardent soloist. This wonderful piece may lack the philosophical overtones that would come to dominate the later Mozart piano concertos, but it set the pattern that would continue -- those dialogues between wind and keyboard, the harmonic daring, the searching cadenzas, the lyricism, the unshakable poise.
O'Coner really made this piece come alive, with his beautiful runs and trills, his sense of compositional balance and, especially, his sensitive coloring. The latter quality of O'Coner, in a way, almost worked to the orchestra's disadvantage -- because it is difficult for so small a group, of less than the greatest polish, to color Mozart's phrases with similar subtlety.
In many phrases, the four first violins, for example, sounded a bit scrawny where they should be polished. Subdued phrases on the whole fared better than ones that required heavier tone (the bewitching slow movement cantabile theme of Britten's alluring Simple Symphony for Strings was quite lovely, for example).
Sixteen is a little small for a chamber orchestra. The most celebrated ones, like the St. Paul or the English Chamber Orchestras, are about twice this size.
Tonal shortcomings also took some of the luster off the Mozart 29th Symphony, K. 201.
Also on the program: Swedish composer Dag Wiren's amiable if unexciting Serenade for String Orchestra and the brief "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" from Handel's "Solomon."