Category: Archive

Music and words to break down barriers

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

BOTH SIDES NOW: An Evening of Music and Spoken Word Celebrating the People of Northern Ireland. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, March 14.

A close-to-capacity audience left St. Patrick’s Cathedral a little after nine o’clock on Sunday evening to be confronted by chilling rain and moist snow. The warmth, which had been abundant and unceasing through the evening, stayed within the venerable church, which had been the scene of a beautifully calibrated, but all too brief, concert, "Both Sides Now," its title borrowed from the beloved song by Joni Mitchell.

Bearing the explanatory subtitle "An Evening of Music and Spoken Word Celebrating the People of Northern Ireland," produced by Northern Lights and hosted by the Irish Echo Newspaper, starred musicians Phil Coulter and James Galway, with an assist from a unique five-man aggregation called the Different Drums of Ireland.

In addition, the evening, which started promptly at 7:30 and ended a spare 95 minutes later, also featured a selection of "friends" who turned out to be Gregory Peck, novelist Edna O’Brien, and memoirist Frank McCourt. The "Angela’s Ashes" author, introducing actor Peck, recalled being moved by the 1944 film "The Keys of the Kingdom," in which the star played a missionary priest in a story drawn from a popular novel by A.J. Cronin.

McCourt’s warm feelings for Peck were more than matched by the enthusiasm demonstrated by the audience, who rose and applauded as the durable star, who turns 83 on April 5, navigated the long diagonal walk leading to the speakers’ podium.

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After welcoming remarks by the Rev. Monsignor Anthony J. Dalla Villa, the rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Coulter, a Catholic born in County Antrim, cautioned the audience about the intention of the evening and its contents.

"Enjoy it, understand it," he said, "and hope that we may come to know each other better." With flutist Galway, a Belfast-born Protestant, composer and singer Coulter played brief selections from the two recordings the pair has made together, 1997’s "Legends," and the recently released "Winter’s Crossing," including the evocative "Farewell to County Antrim," among others.

In the first of his two appearances, Peck reminded the audience that Herman Melville’s 1849 novella, "Redburn," based on a voyage to Liverpool the author, then 18, had made in 1837, dealt with 500 Irish men, women, and children embarking on a journey to America.

The actor’s familiar voice, resounding through the vastness of St. Patrick’s, seemed to recall Peck’s own connections with Melville, first as Captain Ahab in John Huston’s 1956 film version of "Moby Dick," and, only last year, when he played Father Maple, the New Bedford cleric in a television remake of the same work.

Edna O’Brien came to the microphone briefly and read from a letter dating to September 1866, in which an American traveler, observing throngs of Irish boarding packet vessels headed for the New World, despaired of Ireland’s future.

Then the flame-haired novelist quoted another missive, written in 1859 by a New York merchant, describing the effect on his household of a self-possessed and opinionated serving girl from Belfast, a certain Kathleen McGuinness, who, the writer felt, might one day end up running the domestic establishment into which she had been hired.

Different Drums of Ireland, whose members all come from the North, demonstrated their skill on, among other instruments, the bodhran, the long drum, and the Lambeg, which the program materials described as a "uniquely Ulster Invention."

The Different Drums contingent, made up of Roy Arbuckle, Kevin Sharkey, Stephen Matier, Rory McCarron, and Brendan Monaghan, form a kind of Irish parallel to the famed Kodo drummers of Japan.

Phil Coulter remembered his late father, a onetime member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, with the tender ballad, "The Old Man," and Galway followed, as he does on most of his own concerts, and always in the tandem tours the two musicians have been doing in the interests of the peace movement, with a selection on the tin whistle.

Coulter and Galway share a directness and a simplicity of approach which prove enormously appealing to their audiences, added to which the fabled flutist from Belfast has a quirky and endearing sense of fun, a quality he kept slightly under wraps on Sunday night, possibly out of respect for the essential solemnity of the venue in which he and his partner were performing.

Coulter commented that, in a time when the people of Northern Ireland have turned their backs on violence and opted for peace, there is "much to commemorate and much to celebrate," and played and sang the song for which he admits he hopes to be remembered, "The Town I Loved So Well."

Returning to the speakers’ podium, Gregory Peck read a brief extract from Seamus Heaney’s verse play, "The Cure at Troy," the Nobel laureate’s version of Sophocles’ "Philoctetes."

Again, the "Both Sides Now" audience rose to give the actor a heartfelt standing ovation, which, the second in about an hour, must qualify as something of a record for St. Patrick’s.

Commenting that in the course of playing around Irish towns and villages as a young musician, he always made a point of "thanking the local priest for the use of the hall," he went on to express his gratitude to John Cardinal O’Connor for providing the Cathedral for the evening, the proceeds of which will go to aid the Omagh Relief Fund.

Closing the concert, Coulter led the audience in a singalong with the ballad "Steal Away" and joined James Galway for a particularly rich rendering of "Derry Air," better known, probably, to most Americans as "Danny Boy."

Coulter reminded his hearers that "Derry Air" is, in fact, "one of the great Irish laments," dealing as it does with "death, dying, and loss."

In other words, it only sounds like a love song.

As an event, "Both Sides Now" had an unusual and admirable degree of integrity and purity. The team’s albums were not on sale in the Cathedral, and only one of the discs, "Winter’s Crossing," made up of music "chronicling the ocean journey of a group of men and women from Northern Ireland to America," was even mentioned in the course of the sparkling, elegant evening, and even then completely in context.

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