Classical composers have found inspiration in folk music for hundreds of years. Think of Béla Bartók's music, infused by Hungarian and Romanian folk melodies; or Aaron Copland, who found inspiration in American folk songs. But it's hard to find classical music that is inspired by Irish folk music, although thousands of traditional Irish songs, jigs and reels exist.
That is one reason why the U.S. premiere of Linen and Lace, a flute concerto by Bill Whelan, was such an unusual and welcome event at the Ravinia Festival on Tuesday night. Whelan is best known as the composer of Riverdance, the Irish music show that step-danced its way into music history 20 years ago.
Flutist Sir James Galway and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered the flute concerto on a program that included much traditional Irish music, and, somewhat incongruously, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
The CSO gave an impressive performance of Pictures on this, their first concert of the season at Ravinia. Hearing the CSO play an old favorite like the Ravel arrangement of Pictures always yields some new delight; this time I particularly noticed the magnificent brass chords and exciting crescendos in the "Catacombs" movement, marred somewhat by a persistent car alarm that was audible in the silence between the massive chords.
Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya carefully controlled the building crescendos in "Bydlo" and also in the final "Great Gate of Kiev," allowing the orchestra to unleash its full sonic brilliance only at the very end.