The eclectic mix you’ll hear at Kaleidoscope music nights, at Odessa in Dublin – everything from solo accordionists to saxophone quartets and baroque music – has won the attention of a growing audience of fans, finds Sinéad Gleeson
Five years ago a new night, offering a blend of classical music and experimentalism, quietly set out its stall. Kaleidoscope, which is celebrating its half-decade with a party night next week, seemed both a breath of fresh air and something that catered for a specific audience. For all its nicheness, here was a monthly event that cared less about preaching to the musically converted than forging new creative partnerships – and introducing to classical music audiences that wouldn’t necessarily go to the National Concert Hall.
Kate Ellis and Cliodhna Ryan ran it until 2013, when two other women took over the curation of the regular night. Karen Dervan is a viola player who works with Irish orchestras; Lioba Petrie teaches, composes for film and theatre, and plays with the musical collective 3epkano. When the pair were approached about taking over, their first response was to say no. “I think,” says Dervan, “that because we had both been in 3epkano people associated us as a pair that work well together. We had no experience of curating events, even though we have both managed things or put stuff together. “Kaleidoscope was so established that we felt like we had to take care of it, and we were thinking, What if we mess this up? It’s a bit like replacing the lead singer in a band you’ve always admired,” she says. “You think you can’t do as a good a job.”
Petrie adds, “It was like being handed a baby and being told to look after it.”
It’s just over a year since they took the helm. Their first show ran in January, falling on one of the most unfortunate dates in the social calendar: New Year’s Day. It was an auspicious, and metaphorical, date for a new beginning, certainly, but a tough one to get crowds to come to. Dervan laughs. “Yes, but I still think it was one of my favourite nights we’ve done. There was no stress, no traffic, and we got such a big crowd that it made us think we could do this.”
The prospect of driving something successful into the ground is a real fear, but so is coasting along, never deviating from tried and trusted choices. From the off, both women wanted to put their own stamp on things. “For the first months we followed what had been there,” says Petrie, “and now we have the confidence to try different things. I really wanted to curate a vocal madrigal group, because I’d never heard one perform at the event before. We approached Liz Hilliard, and she got a group of professional singers together called the Stickleback Singers. At that New Year’s Day gig they walked into the room singing, and it was really special, and they’ve played every couple of months.”
The duo have had little to do in terms of maintaining audiences because of a dedicated slew of regulars. Held on the first Wednesday of every month at Odessa, the Dublin restaurant, bar and club, it draws a lot of musicians, but it’s not a closed shop. Many curious tourists have come through the doors; other people arrive because they are intrigued by a night that offers short, challenging sets, from quartets, soloists and brass ensembles. “We’ve talked to regulars who don’t care what’s on the bill. They come here because it’s an experience like no other.”
The event usually runs from 9pm to 11pm, with four or five acts on the bill. This can mean everything from solo accordionists to saxophone quartets and baroque music. Some regulars are musicians, but many are former musicians who find something else when they come to the night. “There are people who learned music when they were young,” says Dervan, “but who now do something else professionally and never returned to music. This night is a way back in, and some of them are now studying again, having been inspired by attending.”
The space is an integral part of the night’s charm. “The previous curators found a room that feels like someone’s living room . . . It’s like a salon. If you sit in one of the front-row seats you can literally reach out and touch the musicians. You’re sitting so close to the performers that you can hear them breathing, and people really like that intimacy.” Dervan describes watching the Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu singing his improvisation under his breath as he played. Tsumbu will play with new trio Treelan at the birthday celebrations – which, as it happens, will be at the Sugar Club rather than Odessa.
The night will be rounded off with a DJ set by Donal Dineen. Dineen has made a career from genre-defying sets that take in everything from electronica and dance to contemporary classical and Afrobeat. Having Dineen play, says Dervan, helps define what the duo are trying to do. “If you have trust in a curator, no matter what’s on the programme, you know they will bring you on a journey. That’s what Donal always did on the radio. Listeners felt there was a good reason Donal wanted us to listen to something, so it translates itself. It doesn’t matter if it’s Mozart or John Cage.”
The September 4th line-up also includes The Gregory Walkers, who specialise in baroque Renaissance music on period instruments, as well as Treelan and Ergodos. Kaleidoscope’s ensemble in residence, which includes Kate Ellis, the former curator, will also play. “We have a world premiere with a piece written specifically for our birthday and for the Robinson Panoramic quartet by the Belfast composer Brian Irvine. He ‘ordered’ something very funky, so we’re looking forward to hearing it.”
Five years in and both want to keep doing Kaleidoscope for as long as they have the same passion and energy. “When we started,” says Petrie, “it seemed almost overwhelming, and that you’d need a vast well of ideas, but now that we’re so far in, we’re trying to fit everything in we want to do.”
Kaleidoscope’s fifth birthday party is at the Sugar Club, Dublin 2, on Thursday September 4th; it will also be streamed at kaleidoscopenight.com
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on August 30th, 2014