Saturday, 24 September 2011

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed

There's a real prospect of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness becoming the President of Ireland next month. It sickens me that an unrepentant terrorist, a senior figure in an organization that murdered many innocents, could be so close to such a position. But with the success of the peace process in which he has been so influential he undoubtedly has a right to participate  in the election. Moreover I can understand his appeal to many voters, given the weak candidates put forward by the traditional parties and the abject failures of those parties in government. Indeed Sinn Fein may well be the only party who would dare to take Ireland out of the dead-end we've parked ourselves in; one could imagine a Shinner government standing up to European bureaucrats and walking away from the Euro if necessary.

Imagine too a Shinner administration and president celebrating the centenary of the 1916 rising, President Martin McGuinness and Taoiseach Mary Lou McDonald on the reviewing stand outside the GPO - my God I feel quite ill thinking about it.

Where oh where is the next generation of democrats and leaders to put forward an alternative vision for Ireland? Yeats was never more right.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

 - from "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats, 1919

Saturday, 17 September 2011


The Montreal Symphony Orchestra has a new home. No longer lost in the vastness of the Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Place-des-Arts, the MSO now plays in a more intimate hall in the same complex. Last Tuesday evening my partner-in-life and I visited the 1-week-old venue for the first time.

The layout of the new hall reminds me very much of Dublin's National Concert Hall - the dimensions are similar,  long and fairly narrow like a church, and just like at the NCH there's a huge pipe organ behind the orchestra. But one deficiency compared to the NCH is the lack of space to mingle with a drink during the intermission. The bar is right outside the hall at the top of an escalator; there's little standing room and last Tuesday some of even that limited space was cordoned off for a function. We ended up leaning against a wall at the edge of the heaving crowd, tightly clutching our glasses of claret.

For our first visit the MSO was joined by two soloists we'd last seen at the NCH in Dublin: the violinist Joshua Bell and the pianist Angela Hewitt. Bell played short pieces by Tchaikovski and Glazounov -the latter allowed him to display his virtuosity in some dazzlingly difficult sections. However the main event of the evening was Turangalîla by Oliver Messiaen - a huge (80 minute) symphonic piece featuring Hewitt on piano and Jean Laurendeau playing an odd piece of antique electronica called an Ondes Martenot. It produced quivering high-pitched notes that reminded me of the soundtrack to a 1950's horror movie. An apologetically small keyboard device in a simple wooden case, it looked pathetic moored alongside Hewitt's Fazioli grand piano - a plywood dinghy bobbing  against a schooner.

The Messiaen was an odd but interesting piece but I'd need to listen to it a few more times to get my head around it's vastness. I recall some striking interplay between the piano and other percussion instruments and some moments of quite overwhelming orchestral power; there were also times when I completely lost its plot. Hewitt played enthusiastically but the potential expressiveness of her on the Fazioli wasn't realised in this piece which seemed a waste of rich resources; when I saw her in Dublin she played Bach's Goldberg Variations on a Steinway and was quite brilliant.

Still it was a fine evening for a wet Tuesday and I'm looking forward to many more visits to the new hall.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Back to the Eighties

With unemployment approaching 15% in a dismal summer  it feels like the early 80's again in Dublin. One of the few positives of that era was the music - or maybe it's just seemed that way to this impressionable 17-year-old. The soundtrack to my studies was music from local bands on Dave Fanning's great radio show. With the exception of U2 they're all long gone and mostly forgotten, but thanks to this post on the excellent culture site Come Here To Me! I've been listening again to The Blades.

I think their best song was "Downmarket":  it captured the sombre mood of that time and place in three rocking minutes of guitars and horns. Sadly the lyrics probably ring true for many in the "black and white and grey" downmarket Dublin of 2011.

In an unfamilar bed
In a unfamiliar room
There’s a throbbing in my head
I’ve succeeded I presume

Everything’s black and white and grey
Living from day to day to day
I suppose I can’t be choosy, when there’s not too many choices
With the problems of the nation
I’m not waiting at an airport
I’m not waiting at a station
I’m standing at a bus stop. Downmarket. Downmarket.

On a rainy afternoon
On a gambling machine
Same old jukebox, same old tune
It’s hard to break this old routine

Everything’s black and white and grey
Living from day to day to day
It’s a fatal resignation, when there’s nothing left to hope for
In a hopeless situation
I’m not waiting at an airport
I’m not waiting at a station
I’m standing at a bus stop. Downmarket. Downmarket.

- Paul Cleary, 1981

Friday, 2 September 2011

What a conductor does (reprise)

I've been a teeny bit critical of celebrity conductors in some previous posts (well here and here to be precise) but here's one I'm going to praise. Forget about dramatic shape throwing in front of an orchestra, this is what a great conductor does:

Benjamin Zander at TED on Music and Passion