Great Irish houses will always welcome back finest musicians

Great Irish houses will always welcome back finest musicians Kyung Wha-Chung

Had all gone according to plan, I intended being in the National Botanic Gardens this evening (Thursday,  June 11) listening to music by Webern, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich played by the visiting Novus Quartet – a group of young Koreans creating a favourable impression wherever they perform.

The Quartet’s visit was scheduled as part of the 2020 Great Music in Irish Houses Festival, which should be celebrating its golden jubilee. But to quote an old adage, “man proposes, but God disposes”. Hopefully Novus can be re-engaged for 2021.

The festival began in 1970 following a casual meeting between young TCD graduate David Laing and the Hon Desmond Guinness. Laing suggested Castletown House in Celbridge, where Guinness was then living, as the venue for a concert.

Guinness went one further with “why not a festival and let us bring Carton [near Maynooth, Co. Kildare] into the picture”. As popular parlance goes, ‘the rest is history’. The first festival ran from June 7-14, 1970 with Laing as artistic director.

In time a number of other stately homes, north and south of the border, joined the prestigious venue list among them Russborough and Killruddery in Co. Wicklow, Headford and Slane Castle in Co Meath, Clandeboye in Co. Down and Stormont Castle, close to Belfast.

David Laing continued as artistic director until 1982 when Judith Woodworth, then based in London, followed him. Judith remained at the helm for 18 years by which time she had become CEO of the National Concert Hall. Her successor was Hugh Tinney with the artistically astute Ciara Higgins following him in 2007.


While I had been reviewing festival performances for the Evening Press from the mid 1970s, Judith Woodworth suggested I take a more active role and wrote programme notes for the festival concerts.

This modest involvement began in 1983 and has continued ever since. I was halfway through the 2020 events when word came of the festival’s cancellation due to prevailing circumstances. However, as the BBC’s Mastermind question master says when the two-minute signal sounds: “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.”

While I have many great memories of the festival, one particular performance sticks in my mind – that of Korean violinist Kyung Wha-Chung and Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman playing the César Franck Sonata in Russborough.

I dug out my review: “[This] was one of those rare occasions where artistic temperament communicated itself through gripping directness. The romantic heart of this sonata beat with tempestuous and passionate urgency. It was magnificent on all counts.” [Evening Press, June 21, 1982]

Virtuoso pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy came to Killruddery House the following June. Raining heavily, the glass roof in the orangery leaked with raindrops landing on player and piano. Besides, an ambassadorial spouse, in the front row, beat time with her right foot!

The unperturbed Ashkenazy valiantly carried on without allowing either distraction to deter him from returning to the festival some time later.

But, for the moment, let us look forward to next year’s event, which by then will have changed its name to the Dublin International Chamber Music Festival.