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In honour of Columba

19 July 2013

Roderic Dunnett hears a new work in Derry, and samples Clifton


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 Ulster.

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 forces.

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 many collide.

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.

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