Friday, 29 July 2011

Just listen!

A lot of the time we hear music without listening. It's in the background while we're driving or preparing dinner and for many people that's enough, apparently. But I can't listen to classical music that way; I'm compelled to actively listen and engage with it, and if I did that while chopping vegetables I'd risk removing a finger. I can just about concentrate on my favourite music broadcasts (The Signal and The JK Ensemble) while washing the pots and pans - but I'm better off just humming along to U2 when hacking an onion with a sharp knife

I recently discovered the CD "A Place Between" published by the Louth Contemporary Music Society and had to give it a serious listen, sitting in front of my stereo after the kids went to bed with only a cold Corona and a slice of lime for company. Yes that's County Louth, well Drogheda to be exact. I don't know anything about the Society beyond what's on its web site - perhaps unbeknownst to me Drogheda is a cradle of the musical avant-garde or maybe there's a more straightforward rationale for the society but whatever, the recording is quite excellent.

It feature lesser-known pieces by some of the best-known contemporary composers such as Glass, Tavener, Gorecki and Pärt, beautifully recorded in St. Peters church,  Drogheda. The Gorecki piece "Good Night" is a real highlight, three variations on a lyrical theme from Hamlet, with the voice of soprano Patricia Rozario soaring through the third movement.

Good-night, sweet prince; 
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest
Recommended for serious listening.

Last Saturday my partner-in-life and I went to an open air concert in Joliette, Quebec, part of the annual Festival de Lanaudière, featuring the thunderingly brilliant Philadelphia Orchestra. This powerful ensemble was perfectly suited to the drama and attack of Finlandia (Sibelius) and Symphonie Fantastique (Berlioz) - the former is a favourite to which I often return, the latter a new discovery for me in this performance that  sustained edge-of-the-seat excitement from first note to last. In between these two was Rachmaninov's Concerto for Piano no. 2 and while I'm sure pianist Kirill Gerstein played wonderfully he was quite sonically overwhelmed by the orchestra behind him.

So there I was, listening intently and half-watching the orchestra in front of me. But many in the audience came for a different reason - the return to Quebec with the Philadelphia Orchestra of celebrity conductor Charles Dutoit, a former conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra who left under a cloud a few years ago. And Dutoit didn't dissappoint his audience, throwing dramatic shapes and intense facial expressions in all directions. The orchestra didn't pay much heed - the musicians looked at their scores mostly or grinned at each other in the case of two bass players.

I'm sure Dutoit did great work with the orchestra in rehearsal, and no doubt the brilliance of the performance was partly due to him. But I can't help feeling that all the people who came to see him were badly missing the point. It's music - forget about the conductor and just listen!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A week in the wild (Irish) west

The coastline of Mayo is beautiful and desolate, broken by the brute power of Atlantic waves and stripped of trees by the unceasing westerly wind. This is the famine country and the spirits of that time are all around; that worn out history told to Irish school children seems present and hunger still lingers in this empty place. In winter it must be bleak and depressing in driving grey rain; in summer, when the wind is merely strong and the sun pierces the clouds, it is quite enchanting and uplifting for the soul.

We've come to spend a week here, my family and I, in the company of my Mam. I believe that if my children learn to love a place like this they'll understand something more of what it is to be Irish.

We've rented a house by the sea, a short drive from Westport. The arrival of each high tide outside our door is greeted by us by cries of wonder as it makes islands of much of the surrounding land and lifts the boats and our hearts. We're such townies, romanticising the commonplace! Apart from the wind the sound-scape consists of the bleating of sheep, now joined by the shouts of our three boys chasing each other in the freedom of this place.

For the restless kids there's plenty to see in the area and we spend a few hours each day exploring.

  • We see Achill Island in the rain but the kids enjoy themselves immensely on the beach at Keel; On our way there we stop at the Beehive restuarant in Keem and have an excellent lunch of locally caught crab and salmon.

  • Westport House is a restored 18th century aristocratic home; the kids are patient on the tour of the house because they're being entertained too in the pirate theme park on the grounds of the house.

  • Killary Fjord is majestic on our boat trip with Killary Cruises. It's also easy to imagine how desolate it must have been in the famine era when there was a large population here.

  • The Ceide Fields close to Ballina, a pre-historic site,  is well worth the visit, but only because our guide is excellent. Without a guided tour it'd be hard to appreciate the significance of a pile of stones on a barren hillside.

I'd like to think we'll return when the boys are all old enough to climb Croagh Patrick.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

U2 360 in Montreal

"What time is it in the world? SHOWTIME!"

It's been a long time since I really got in to a U2 record, probably not since Achtung Baby, and my last U2 concert was in 1993. But now I'm an Irish expat, once again, and so when the 360 tour made its Montreal stop last night my partner-in-life and I were there.

You could hardly call it a concert as the music was only part of the show and anyway Bono's voice was often drowned out by 80,000 fans all round me singing and shouting along.

With U2's musical catalogue stretching over thirty years you could describe it as musical nostalgia with special effects, and for me it worked well as such, starting as it did with four straight songs from Achtung Baby. I most enjoyed the songs where the crowd didn't or couldn't sing along, allowing Bono's voice and Edge's guitar to ring out: "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)", "Hold me, Thrill me, Kiss me, Kill me" and "Miss Sarajevo".

However the sound wasn't as good as I expected and Edge's guitar was often a bit lost behind the bass and vocals - perhaps that's a limitation of the circular stage set-up as there's no solid structure behind the speakers. Nobody minded though; the crowd was tremendously enthusiastic and a lot more reverential than an Irish crowd would be - it's only bloody Bono after all!

The threatening thunderstorm held off until the last moments of the encore but then a deluge began that cleared the stadium.

Bono's voice seems to be improving with the years - I don't remember him singing so well on any of the five occasions I've seen U2 before:
  • December 1982 in front of a few hundred people at the St. Francis Xavier hall in Dublin when the songs that would be included on the "War" album had one of their first public performances. I was blown away by a new song, with the band joined by Steve Wickham on electric violin: "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"

  • August 1985 when U2 made a surprise appearance (after Freddie White!) at a free concert in Cork, the "Lark by the Lee", and I was right at the front up against the stage

  • June 1987 in Gothenburg when I was swept along in a human wave at the front of the stage and once again at the end of the day when I ended up on the train to Malmo instead of Stockholm and had to take a plane home. U2 gave a really storming performance that day, playing much of The Joshua Tree.

  • June 1992 at Globen in Stockholm in what I thought was the best concert musically; Edge's guitar on the final song "Love is Blindness" was haunting and piercing - I can hear it still.

  • July 1993 at Stockholm's Stadion which I don't remember much at all except for the rain; I do remember one of the support acts very well though, a  young, waif-like and brilliant PJ Harvey in her "Rid of Me" era
Ah memories, memories...