Music and Reviews from Clare, Limerick, Waterford and sometimes further afield

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Opera in the Open 2011 - Lunchtime Arias at Wood Quay

A trip to the open air opera productions in the Italian city of Verona is the sine qua non of  al fresco experiences for many opera buffs.  A rather more accessible amphitheatre experience for Irish punters was available free of charge in the garden of the Dublin Civic Offices every Thurday during August  weather permitting.  I was surprised to learn that this series has been running for 12 years and I was delighted to catch the last production of the season last Thursday.

There were many anxious eyes watching the weather that day in Dublin with thousands heading to Clontarf for a  rematch  between the Ireland and England cricket teams. While rain interrupted procedings in Castle Avenue, thankfully, there was no break in play in Wood Quay and the sun even made a cameo appearance during the second act.

Cool Man!

Standing ovation
  In this light hearted production, Beaumarchais' infamous plot for The Marriage of Figaro is moved from the 18th century to a  1960's hippie commune and features a sextet of singers and a keyboard player (David Wray) with the action condensed into a frenetic hour long escapade.  The opera is shorn of  much of the recitative, replaced by regular humorous plot updates from narrator  (and director) Morgan Crowley , who  extracted maximum comic potential from this device. (It reminded me of the approach of Roberto Recchia in La Serva Padrona  at Wexford last year). The singers were very effectively amplified with head mikes but the quality of the voices was not obscured and the standard of singing was excellent from all. Of the cast  I recognised  Sandra Oman as Suzannah and Simon Morgan as the count from appearances in the Shannon region last year. 
A spontaneous standing ovation followed the final sextet. Among the many afficionados we met Jack Morrissey who was promoting his forthcoming Flanders and Swan revue, Anne and Aidan White who regularly travel form |Shannon for the series, Juliet |O Sullivan who had travelled from Cork and Bernadette Comerford of RTE .

 The audience numbering about a thousand were of all ages and ranges and there were several large groups . There were more buggies and wheelchair bound patrons than in a typical opera going audience given the accessibility of the occasion from a cost and logistics point of view. I love open air events  and with our summer being so brief, I hesitate before committing to an indoor experience resenting wasting any precious hours of sunshine before  Winter sets in .  This was great fun and the singing was of a very high standard. Much has been written about the sorry state of opera matters in Ireland and while I appreciate the concern about the abscence of a formal venue in the capital, I would not have swapped this fun afternoon for some of the evenings I have been fortunate to spend in some very fine houses. I am guessing it was just as much fun as Verona without all those Roman steps to climb. It was like - 'so cool man!'

Jack Morrissey of 'Flanders and Swann'

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

'Into the Light' Regina Nathan at Cois na hAbhna Ennis

Looking at the Irish Times listing pages last week I note that there are not just one but two Clare singers featured in forthcoming events at the nation's premier concert venue, the National Concert Hall, Dublin. Soprano, Regina Nathan will perform arias associated with legendary soprano Maria Callas and young Clarecastle tenor Dean Power will perform at a gala  event to mark the 30th anniversary of the Hall. An opportunity to hear the highly acclaimed soprano in the more intimate venue of the Comahaltas headquarters in her home county presented itself earlier this season and I include this review  in retrospect of the event.

Although known primarily for her work in operatic repertoire, the programme featured songs from a range of genres. Concerts of assorted songs can present a staging problem with a string of numbers punctuated by too frequent applause. Here the soloist opted to assume a stage character with the set list designed to flow seamlessly from one to the other. Of the numbers presented in the first half, the arias by Bellini and Verdi were the most satisfying and suited best the strength of Ms. Nathan's voice. 

In the second set, the numbers I most enjoyed were the brace of Kurt Weill numbers followed by a rendition of the Piaf number L'Accordianiste in a powerful English translation which really suited the theatrical treatment given to it . This trio of  numbers did work well as a sort of song cycle with the darker more menacing mood sustained unbroken by applause.

Regina Nathan was most sympathetically accompanied at the piano by Padhraic O Cuinneagain and there was no electric clavinova for this modest venue and a proper splendid grand piano was in place for the occasion which is no small boast for a relatively small scale event.

This was an interesting and entertaining evening and  approach and it did work very well in some parts. However in this intimate venue, I think her audience might have preferred her to simply set the context for her numbers in her own engaging character with some simple spoken introductions   . I felt the pianist could have been exploited more to add an instrumental interlude or two to vary the timbre of a solo production without distorting the concept of the show.

The venue, a modern purpose built space  serves as the Ennis base of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eirinn and activities scheduled here are  more usually associated with traditional music events and  it  is very comfortable and suitable for a cabaret or salon performance. As Regina Nathan is an artist of considerable international standing, she might have enjoyed greater support from Clare cognoscenti and the audience could and should  have been larger as the event was well publicised in local press and posters. With a plethora of performing groups in the town and county, the performing ability of Clare folk is truly amazing. I am not so sure about our ability to support our artists by also being good listeners .

Casta Diva   (Norma)                                      (Bellini)  
Killing Me Softly                                                (composers Fox and Gimbell)
The Rose                                                         A Broom
Les Amants d'un Jour                                      Monnot
E Strano..Sempre libera La Traviata                Verdi   
Everybody Says Don't (Anyone Can whistle)   Sondheim
Phil the Fluter's Ball                                         P French
Don't Let the Good Life Pass You  By            S Rucker
Children Will Listen (Into the Woods)               Sondheim
Monica's Waltz  (The Medium)                        Menotti
The Saga of Jenny (Lady in the Dark)              K Weill
Barbara's Song  (Threepenny Opera)              K Weill
The Accordionist                                            M . Emer
Ain't Got Time to Die                                      H Johnson

Aloha from UkuleleHooley by the sea

Stephen Cummins
Proof that a ukulele revoultion is underway was apparent when swarms of people carrying this small stringed instrument invaded the People's Park in Dun Laoghaire on Sunday last. My daughter and I joined the throng and arrived just in time to join Stephen Cummins guide beginner ukuleles through a basic strum and the 3 chord trick to the perenial favourite Wimoweh . No Ukulele ? -no problem as Stephen, also known as  @Ukegnome had an assortment of brightly couloured ukeleles to lend to wannabe George Formby's. The programme of acts kicked off with Paul Moore who had a great appeal for younger listeners and we followed him to the marquee for his children's workshop as he led the ingenues through Michael Row the Boat Ashore. Particular highlights among the plethora of acts  were the West Cork Ukulele Orchestra who displayed some influence of the popular Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain in their set mixing old songs with quirky renditions of modern pop songs . We also enjoyed the wittily named Ukeristic Congress. I wonder will they get a gig at a similarly named forthcoming event.  Andrew Robinson, the Ukulele Bass player in this group, well known in Baroque music circles also featured in a very charming trio Aisling Out Walking with a set list of golden oldies beginning with a Ruby Murray hit from the 50's, Real Love.  Andrew tells me that he began his string playing career on the ukulele before moving to viola de gamba. The deep sound made by the bass uke was quite extraordinary and a very satisfactory substitute to the much larger double bass and so much easier to lug around. The platform was situated at the coastal side of the park and spectators could admire the sea view while taking in the entertainment.

Paul Moore leads childrens workshop

Loren with her first ukulele and sister Megan

balancing baby and ukulele

Alice centre gets to grip with her uke

Aisling out Walking

Spectators and sunshine
There was a good range of food and craft stalls and if so inspired, one could buy a uke from the busy Dublin Guitar Centre Stall.  This fun filled festival demonstrated what a very accessible instrument the ukulele is .  Inherently gentle and inoffensive, it is impossible to resist a smile when one sees grown men walking around with one even before they begin to strumming the diminuitive lute. We say bravo to Tony Boland , festival organiser on organising a very enjoyable event.  We can say that we officially launched our ukulele career at the UkuleleHooley by the sea.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

New Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of Cologne at Christchurch, Waterford

The Chamber Philharmonia of Cologne presented an attractive and diverse programme of baroque and classical repertoire at Christchurch Cathedral Waterford Saturday 20th August.  Comprising seven strings and augmented with oboe for some repertoire, the ensemble played with verve and finesse and looked as though they were enjoying themselves on the platform with good interaction between the players.  There was a freshness to the performance that gave no hint that they were in any way weary of the repertoire that they have performed countless times in many different venues all over the globe it seems.  This group really gets around, an internet search indicated that a group under this name also performed in Christchurch, New Zealand.   The repertoire is familiar but not hackneyed. There was a Vivaldi concerto, Tempesto di Mare, a concerto grosso by Handel  , a divertimento by Mozart. A Bach sonata  featured an  excellent oboeist which added a refreshing stringency to the string timbre although delivered minus  hallmark keyboard part. The soloist credentials of the cellist were very evident in the Tchaickowsky serenade which was perfect programming for a summer evening.  In a programme of masterpieces, it was a charming string serenade,( the second work of the evening bearing the title Tempesta di Mare) by  a youthful Rossini  for string 2 violins, cello and bass that  drew  the strongest audience reaction of the evening . For their encore, the ensemble made a foray into 20th century repertoire with the Gardel's tango Por Una Cabeza familiar from the dance secene in the film  Scent of a Woman. The rendition featuring the viola  had more of a air of a genteel salon ensemble   than  a bordello slum band about it. This is the seventh visit by musicians under the aegis of New Philharmonic Orchestra of Cologne and one is impressed not only by their excellent musicianship and charm but also their ability to grow their audience. Waterford afficionados present included theatre director and arts critic, Pat McEvoy and Colm Long anchor man of Waterford Sea Shanty Group, Hooks and Crooks  just returned from successful appearances at Festival du Chant Marine in Brittany. The confluence of elegance, both musical and architectural, in this beautiful 18th century neo-classical cathedral with the resonance created by a large appreciative audience made this a most enjoyable occasion.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Irish Church Music Summer School 2011

Wednesday Eucharist
Entrance      Lauda Sion Salvatorum Joncas
Psalm 33     May Your Love be upon us   Bernard Sexton
Communion Come Receive Christ  Phyllis Wayne
Recession     Let All Creation Sing  David Ogden

Mass of Renewal by Bernard Sexton
contributions from dedicated choir  director Orla Barry

We Must Glory in the Cross Joncas
Words of Everlasting Life     Chris de Silva
Draw Near in Faith                  Walker
Lord Jesus, Give Us the Bread of Life  John Jones Sr Maeliosa Byrne
Jubilate Deo Omnis Terra   Stephen Dean
Mass of St Paul  by Ephram Feeley

While trad  musicians made their annual pilgrimage  to Clare for Willie Clancy Week. I travelled East  to the gathering of  Irish Church Music Association Summer School in Maynooth held in July and attended afternoon and evening events on Wednesday and Thursday. There was a good buzz with numbers appearing to be up on last year.  I enjoyed the programme of liturgical music accompanying Wednesday's service. The rousing Joncas gathering hymn with a Latin refrain  would suit most choirs and the upbeat syncopated closing number should fit well into schools' and gospel choir repertoire.  While I liked Bernard Sexton's  Mass settings, in general  I found the psalms on both days not quite stringent enough. I believe  'ooh... '  has no place in the lexicon of a psalm setting and  my toes curl in sympathy with the embouchure if I have to sing such a lyric in a liturgical context. In Thursday's liturgy, Chris de Silva's setting of psalm 19, Words of Everlasting Life  while very melodious also included the dreaded syllable with florid  piano interlude  and the number was a bit 'Tin Pan Alley' for my taste. This is definitely one for choir only with echoing of phrases between vocal parts.  Christoper Walker's short hymn 'Draw Near in Faith' was very tranquil lovely  four part setting  of a Communion text. There was an organic feel to the proceedings with the inclusion of Lord Jesus Give Us the Bread of Life featuring an attractive anthem like  refrain by participant John Jones from 2010 Composition seminars.   The special choir contributed some beautiful numbers under director Orla Barry. Splendid organ voluntaries by David Connolly and Eoin Tierney rounded off the proceedings.

There was much focus on change in the missal and the adaption of  musical settings in accordance. As I was not present at any of dedicated familiarisation sessions,  I can't comment on the formal pronouncements Informally  there was some concern expressed at a further divergence from the Anglican wording which  seems to counteract any ecumenical movement to common  settings of liturgies . There was a sense that while modest in the scale of changes in our lifetime, there was little enthusiasm for them  and  it is not as if there are not more pressing matters in ecclesiastical matters generally. However church musicians are a stoic band and applied themselves to absorbing the changes and making adjustments over the week. One fortunate consequence  is the publication of  a compilation of popular Mass settings 'Sing the Mass' including revisions and this should be a very useful resource particularly as some of the Mass settings have been out of print.

Cantando under director Orla Barry gave a concert in the St Patrick's Church .  This is a very long space and problematic  for a performance  particularly of chamber groups. I felt they would have had more impact  positioning themselves in the centre in the pews as they seemed very far away from their audience.

Fiona Walsh of Ennis Gospel Choir had an interesting proposition regarding pop up liturgical choir. It was good to meet familiar faces and also to make new contacts. I enjoyed talking to  Betty Fitzgerald from Cork about her school projects  and Aine Mohoric about her music therapy work in Crumlin. Fr. Brian Power from Waterford had some interesting observations about congregational singing in rural Deise parishes.   I joined Olive O Brien,  Caitlin Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh from Tulla and  Limerick liturgist Joe O Connor for dinner in the magnificent Pugin refectory. I made some enquiries among delegates about progress in initiating vespers in their churches, a practice promoted at 2009 summer school  particularly for cathedral parishes but it would appear not to have become established practice in Irish Catholic churches. While the gathering continues to be useful for familiarising liturgical musicians with lots of repertoire, I believe there is scope to include more in the way of  discusssion and advice on the practical side of running choirs like

*PR ;  using local media to promote choir endeavours;
*atttracting a gender balance in new recruits (usually means more tenors and basses ),
*maybe some consideration of  aspects of philosophy in relation to sacred music ,
*Encouraging the congregation to participate . Is it  important?  Some congregations seem to participate more than others . What constitutes good practice in this regard?

You can read my report from the 2010 Summer School on    this link.
Chairman Paul Kenny presided over the proceedings  and kept things moving along in genial fashion .  I stayed in St Patrick's College building itself which where my comfortable  room looked out on the carefully tended quadrangle greens and was good value for a tranquil and  historic location.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Kilkenny Arts Festival 2011

Set Theatre Belle of KAF Ball
Balcony Scene
Banana Bag & Bodice Co NY 
The journey time to Kilkenny from Waterford is practically halved since I last made the trip with bypasses and road improvements.  There was no air of pre match tension when I travelled to the Cats stronghold on the eve of semifinal day for the annual Kilkenny Arts Festival.  I was  too late unfortunately to hear William Butt in St John's Priory. For afternoon entertainment, that left Tabernacle, a modern dance piece on the theme of changing attitudes to the Catholic Church. I have to confess, liturgical dancing either in church or out leaves me cold so it was on  to option 3 and I went along to hear Pat McCabe and Dermot Healy reading from recent work in the Set Theatre.  This new venue seating at a guess circa 250 is part of the labryntine Langton's Empire and I was mightily impressed with it . As a private enterprise, I assume it does not require vast sums of state money to keep it open and  I like any venue where one has easy access to the bar. The only problem was that the velvet cushioned seats (with lovely red piping) were so comfortable that I am afraid that I slumbered for the first part of McCabe's piece. When I did pay attention McCabe I can say did read in a suitably dramatic manner.  Healy's style was more perfunctory as was the Q&A mediated by Colm Toibín  with both authors dealing somewhat flippantly with some of the questions and Toibín might have had a more substantial role in the process of drawing the authors more effectively on the business of writing. There was no mention of the recent spat in the IT letters page involving Healy between Eugene McCabe and Eileeen Battersby following her lukewarm review of his recent book.
Healy & McCabe
It was a cold and rainy evening  , a suitable prelude it seems to  economist Morgan Kelly's  latest pronouncements  in the Cathedral. Kilkenny is still popular it seems with hen parties judging by the density of  a certain kind of pink fluffy head gear on High Street and the Fabulous Fanzini Brothers were adding to the madcap factor with their street theatre routine.  I returned to the comfy Set Theatre for Beowulf  which seemed to excite the Twitter community the night before. The show was billed as a songplay which  I presume  is a literal translation of German Singspiel. It was certainly value for money with a seven piece band plus six vocalists who played heroes mortals and monsters in an irreverant musical melange of punk and cabaret  with our esteemed poet's translation very evident as a prop .   It was great  fun and one didn't know quite what to expect next from this youthful company, Banana Bag & Bodice, from New York who were en route to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The amplification in some of the punk style numbers made it impossible to make out a lyric but I suppose that is in keeping with the nature of the style.
 I loved this venue with its retro lampshades, red velevt carpets and glass balconies. The  layout  over two levels  made it quite suitable for a small intimate audience  or a larger one.

I am impressed by the efforts this festival makes in promoting,  and advertising their events . The brochures were distributed  to near and far well  in advance. We even found a batch on the cross channel ferry .While some festivals have a token twitter or facebook presence, KAF have more than most explored the possibilities of using innovative social media and I enjoyed  following the festival on twitter and  reading some of the excellent blog reviews. I am working up to catching up with Morgan Kelly's lecture, the link to which is helpfully made available via these media.

Summer Music Galway in Ennis

Beethoven Violin Concerto

The staff and senior students of Summer Music in Galway, the  long established summer music school gave a terrific concert at Danlann, Ennis Co Clare on Monday night.  The main work offered was Beethoven's Violin Concerto with David Stewart as soloist. The concert master of Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra appeared to really relish the performance and was well served by the orchestra under Paul Ezergalis.  I was struck by the prominent role of principal bassoon and Michael Dooley did justice to the numerous duet moments in the work. Michael was also credited with a chaming arrangement of an Irving Berlin medley.  The strings were a liitle over emphatic  for my taste and might have aimed for a more relaxed feel for this 1930's popular repertoire. There was a selection of operatic arias by Mozart and Rossini  from a quartet of singers,  including Sarah Ellen Murphy and  Helen Houlihan, the context set  in amusing introductions by  soprano, Edel O'Brien.  There was rare treat in an arrangement of a piece called Cousins featuring a rich and warm duet combination of cornet and trombone.

Regrettably for such a high calibre of musical treats,  the audience number was roughly the same as the number in the orchestra. I think it is very difficult to gather an audience for a one off event unless it is hooked to another group or is publicised as part of an overall festival or sequence of events. I think there is some scope for a number of groups to pool their advertising resources and market Ennis as a multi faceted music hub and promote  their events in a combined effort . Come for Willie Clancy Week  and stay on for Summer Music.  Leaving that aside with two music schools and numerous choral groups in Ennis, it should be possible without too much advertising, to bring in larger audiences than are usual at classical events in Ennis. Musicians themselves I believe have a certain responsibility not only to perfrom but also to form an audience for fellow performers and to encourage our students in this regard. Although I still comb the local papers for news of events, I tend to look now online for information which I would not have done a year ago.   In fact, it was a text message that brought me along on this particular evening as I had missed seeing the printed advertising .

The next event in this venue will be  a  youth opera , Deep Waters  8pm Thursday 11th August .