After a weekend spent very much in the present, exploring the wilds and beaches of Dublin, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra Chief Conductor Jaime Martín talks to Michael Quinn about returning to the orchestra at the National Concert Hall this Friday for an excursion into the past.

Following his experience last week in the first of three concerts he will conduct as part of RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra LIVE, the orchestra's current live streaming programme, it’s a prospect he says he is looking forward to with anticipation.

"The challenges of playing to an empty hall knowing the audience is somewhere else were huge. But seeing how the orchestra reacted, how they created a real sense of occasion, it felt like we were playing to a full house. It felt strange but good."

"At this time of uncertainty, I want to programme music that will be like a warm bath for our audiences, for people who have been separated from each other for so long...Now, it's a moment for offering comfort, for speaking to the heart."

Perhaps the oddest image of Martín’s first streamed concert was not the empty hall, peculiar though that was, but seeing the orchestra playing in facemasks and behind protective screens. 

"It makes it all the more difficult to communicate, but we have to find ways to overcome these new difficulties. Somehow, it also makes everybody focus harder and bring something extra to performing." 

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The sense of separation from audiences has stayed with Martín and informs the choice of music for the remaining two concerts he will conduct.

"At this time of uncertainty, I want to programme music that will be like a warm bath for our audiences, for people who have been separated from each other for so long. It’s not a moment to challenge too much, that will come later. Now, it’s a moment for offering comfort, for speaking to the heart."

If Covid-enforced restrictions pose a challenge to Martín and his musicians, there are also, he suggests, unexpected benefits to be found as well.

"Because we are not allowed to have a full-sized orchestra on stage, we have to choose our repertoire more carefully. It’s the perfect opportunity to play some of the highlights written for a smaller, chamber-sized orchestra and a fantastic way of showing the potential of the NSO."

All three pieces in this week’s concert he describes as "optimistic music".

"I can find few examples of music that are more open and positive in a very honest way than Mozart’s Divertimento in D. Stravinsky’s Pulcinella is fun and entertaining, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, with a virtuosic opening movement and a slow movement you can hum, is like moving from the sparkling wine of Mozart to champagne."

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In choosing those three classically-accented pieces, Martín is cutting his coat to suit his cloth. Simply put, he says, "we needed music composed for smaller forces."

"So the Mozart was originally written for the kind of chamber orchestra that we can safely accommodate, the Stravinsky in the last year of the Spanish Flu pandemic when orchestra and audience numbers were limited, as they are now, and the Prokofiev, looking back to the music of the 18th century, requires a leaner orchestra in keeping with those times."

All three pieces are affectionate backward glances, Mozart paying homage to the expressive music of Arcangelo Corelli, Prokofiev to Haydn’s irrepressible vitality and Stravinsky celebrating the pantomime-like colour and chaos of commedia dell’arte. And in all three there is a thrilling sense of relish for the sound of a chamber orchestra.

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"It’s amazing that Pulcinella was written after The Rite of Spring," says Martín. "But it was such an important turning point for Stravinsky, it influenced everything he wrote afterwards. It’s a demanding piece to perform because he was trying to push the boundaries of his own age at the same time as trying to sound like the old classics. Each of the movements celebrates a different instrumental section, there are wonderful solos for the wind instruments and a fabulous moment with trombone and double bass; it’s almost like a concerto for orchestra."

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Composed in the last full year of the Great War, Prokofiev described his First Symphony as "happy, uncomplicated music" although Martín is sceptical about another claim the composer made.

"I’m not sure I agree with him when he said if Haydn was still alive he would write in this style. I think that was Prokofiev’s fantasy. But the interesting thing is he re-creates Haydn’s music in an extremely modern way. There’s contrast but agreement too. Like the concert as a whole, it’s a fascinating combination between past and present."

RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra will be streamed across RTÉ Culture and broadcast on RTÉ lyric fm at 7pm on Friday, October 16th.