Tuesday, March 18, 2008

St Patrick's Day - Big Tunes & Anthems in the Waterfront

It’s not often I do anything to celebrate St Patrick’s Day ... other than fly to England for a meeting that’s not recognising that the day’s a holiday for our company’s NI-based employees, and have to take another day off in lieu instead.

After spending the morning at Streamvale Farm – the open farm up on the Ballyhanwood Road behind Dundonald Ice Bowl – with the Little’un enjoying playing in the sawdust, ignoring the cute animals, and wolfing down a hot dog and enjoying a tub of their excellent home made ice cream. They’re now open daily for the Easter holidays (10:30-17:30, on Sundays it’s 2pm to 5.30pm).

BBC NI Classical Music logo

The evening took the form of Big Tunes & Anthems in the Waterfront Hall, a free concert supported by Belfast City Council (kind of a cultural rates rebate!) and BBC NI who were broadcasting it on Radio Ulster (on Listen Again until next Mon).

It was an evening of music from Belfast-born composer Shaun Davey, backed by the Ulster Orchestra with a vastly extended percussion section, a combined choir (Belfast Philharmonic, Saint George’s Singers, Renaissance Singers and Ulster Youth Choir), and a fair number of soloists. And a relaxed John Toal compèred the evening – a long way from the impromptu carol service in December.

Shaun Davey - composer

Davey sat on stage during the whole of the first half, sometimes singing alongside his wife Rita Connolly, playing the guitar for one piece. He nearly feel off his chair in pleasure diring the opening number The Longship at Sea, grinning and smiling in a boyish fashion, soaking in the atmosphere and the incredible sound of the orchestra and choir that were belting out his compositions, like the cat who’d got the cream.

While the paying free-loading audience were banned from photography, Davey spent the first 15 minutes after the interval wandering around the Waterfront’s auditorium taking pictures with his camera before retaking his seat onstage. But he’d lost his glee, unhappy with the monitor mix at his feet, and looking on edge. Even sang May We Never Have to Say Goodbye with his arms folded.

There couldn’t be too many composers that take such advantage of (or interest in) such a range of indigenous Irish instruments. At least three types of pipes being played last night – uilleann, gaita and Scottish – never mind the fiddles, accordions, tin whistles, Lambeg drums!

Davey’s not a composer who does complicated endings. Nothing fades out like a sentence that an author forgot to . Pieces nearly always build up with a crescendo at the end and then stop. Dead.

And if last night’s selection was typical, he uses the choir more for their oos and ahs than for words. Makes them sound a bit like the Voice Ahs patch and on my old Roland keyboard!

A couple of the items in the first half used tiny shrill handbells that cut over the mêlée of the orchestra. Music of the Spheres was a real highlight as four of the percussionists were positioned high up around the back of the auditorium with a bell or two apiece. It was the true surround sound experience as the sound of the bells travelled in an arc across the back of the hall, while the orchestra continued to play up front. Magical to close my eyes, put my head back and just listen. Bet it wasn’t as good on the tranny!

For a radio concert, they made good use of the lighting, with a warm yellow/orange glow appearing in just the right spot in The Pilgrim’s Sunrise.

I think we were spoilt by the first half. After the short interval it was back for what felt like more of the same. Two excerpts from The Relief of Derry (including another surround sound experiment, this time with instruments dotted around and Scottish pipers parading in.

The second half’s highlight had to be Flag Music from the Special Olympics suite. Originally performed by 100 percussionists in Croke Park Stadium, it had been pared down to nine last night, though they had their hands full of gizmos and racket-making gadgets. Six or so minutes of percussion, with a quick blast of brass near the end. Noel Eccles was king of the back row noise-makers. I think the last time I’d seen him he was centre-stage banging big drums in Riverdance in the Kings Hall at Balmoral.

Ulster Orchestra logo

While all sounds good on the radio, the mix in the Waterfront Hall itself wasn’t great. The big choir wasn’t often audible above the orchestra pit, soloists couldn’t always be distinguished from the noise sound booming out from the Ulster Orchestra seated behind them.

Maybe sitting about eight rows from the front (just in front of the sound desk), the sound quality was always going to be doomed? Could folk sitting higher up distinguish between the different musicians and singers? It wasn’t awful, and didn’t ruin the evening, but it was far from ideal. In some ways, it felt like it was deliberate. Making sure that sounds from one area of the stage didn’t bleed into the microphones in other areas. Preserving the radio output over the audience’s experience?

All in all, a good night’s music, with some terrific performances from long-time Davey-collaborator Liam O’Flynn (uilleann pipes) and the other soloists. And special mention to conductor David Brophy who must have springs in the heels of his shoes as he bounced up and down, and danced across his podium, keeping time and bringing in performers in front, as well as above and behind him.

Watch out in case there’s a St Patrick’s Day concert next year. Might be worth picking up some tickets.

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