LIVERPOOL received a
tremendous artistic uplift from being named European Capital of
Culture five years ago. Not long after this scheme was first
conceived by the Greek Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri, in
1983, Glasgow held the title, and then Dublin. The current holders
are Košice, in Slovakia, and Marseilles.
Such was its success that
the UK now has a City of Culture scheme. Derry (Londonderry), in
Northern Ireland, is the first.
Had you ventured on to
the banks of the River Foyle last month, you would have seen an
estimated 33,000 people celebrating together on the banks below the
walls - now a World Heritage Site - that were for centuries a
symbol of sectarian strife, as a magnificent dragon-led procession
made its way down and upriver. At the fore, aptly, rode the city's
great Celtic saint, St Columb or Columba.
The RC Cathedral,
bestriding the hill opposite, is dedicated to St Eugene; but
Columba's historic part in bringing Christianity to Ireland makes
him revered by all parts of the community.
No surprise, perhaps,
that St Columb's Cathedral, resplendent within the walls, and now
restored in a multi-million-pound conservation programme, was
packed for the world première of Columba Canticles by
Laurence Roman, Lecturer in Composition at the University of
The music of the first
half provided an apt introduction to two talented young chamber
choirs, from the Universities of Ulster and Aberdeen.
Two medium-length a
cappella works by the gifted Dublin-born composer Michael
McGlynn, the intensely moving "Jerusalem" and Quisquis
eris, memorable for some exquisite melismatic touches,
gorgeous solo moments, and melting word-setting ("When shall we
come unto thee . . . ?"), revealed the beauty and allure of the
cathedral's acoustic, enhanced by the young singers' being packed
sardine-like into a small space on a high dais.
Paul Mealor's Ubi
caritas and Ave Maria - the two composers, 11 years
apart, made an attractive pairing - confirmed the quality and
sophistication of this inspired, committed, and often original, if
a little too self-hyped, composer. Mealor's attractive, thoughtful
counterpoint and rich clusterings emerged all the more delicately
thanks to the gentle refinement of these youthful performers, under
the first-class direction of the conductor, Shaun Ryan.
Just short of 40 minutes
in length, Columba Canticles is a setting with speaker
(the commanding actor Dessie Gallagher, from St Columba's own
county of Donegal), which explores the rich imagery of the long
poem The Cathedral by the Antrim-born Sam Burnside, who
now lives in Derry.
This most expressive of
texts, specially extended to lend weight to the new musical
setting, was not reproduced in the programme - always a mistake.
Thus, despite Gallagher's superb delivery and fine enunciation,
sections of the verse were lost on the uninitiated.
Yet the impact, while
blunted, was still strong. There is some ap- pealingly atmospheric
music in Roman's score, and the strings of the compacted Southbank
Sinfonia (again, young performers) shone through even where
inspiration flagged occasionally. Gregorian chant is embedded
throughout, serving often as a cantus firmus.
There is a constant
counterpointing of textual and musical ideas. Kyrie, Gloria,
Sanctus, and Agnus Dei frame the more secular passages in this
imaginative se- quence. After the choir's resplendent end to the
Gloria, Burnside's "The Chapter House" - a meditation on atrocities
and the losses that they occasion - felt fractionally thin for so
important a subject. But the brilliant bustle of "The Bell Tower",
bells and musical keys all a-jostle; a lithe E. J. Moeran-like folk
tune, cleverly taking over from the folksy jollity of "The Nave";
and a blithe triple-time Sanctus all made their mark.
The composer's note on
"Sunday School" is intriguing. "Frances Alexander [1818-95], who
composed 'There is a Green Hill Far Away' [from Hymns for
Little Children, first published in 1848], was a Derry woman,
and is buried there. This immediately suggested incorporating one
of Mrs Alexander's 'schoolroom standards' (I'll leave you to guess
which!) as my cantus firmus."
The subtle variants Roman
puts this famous melody through add much to the movement, in which
the bleakness of Victorian schoolrooms is suggested, and elements
of the Greek alphabet are recited. While the text has echoes of
George Mackay Brown, the speaker's delivery here attractively
recalled Walton's Façade or Stravinsky's
Persephone. This provided a colourful denouement for all
The closing Agnus Dei
yields up a slow Irish air, Slán le Máigh - The Bells
of Shandon - with lovely descants, and the lulling sound of
Irish bagpipes - as lulling as (say) Duruflé's Requiem.
This is typical of the brave invention of Roman's multi-allusive
score. Here and there, perhaps inevitably, an idea (perhaps a
sentimental tinge) may not work quite well as others; or else too
But even had Columba Canticles' many strands bewildered
Columba himself (521-597), Iona's saint would have felt honoured by
this most beguilingly successful of Ulster celebrations, which
sailed on from firework-ridden Derry to a second performance in
Stormont Castle the following night.