Category Archives: reviews and reports

RTE Concert Orchestra (NCH, 25 March 2015): Ravel’s piano concerto in G

RTÉ Concert Orchestra: Essential Classics

John Wilson conductor
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet piano
RTÉ Contempo Quartet

Eric Coates Dancing Nights
Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major
Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Gershwin An American in Paris

“What links all these pieces?” began conductor John Wilson, biding time as the stage was reset after the Vaughan Williams piece.

“Maurice Ravel.”

With a raconteur’s fluency, leaning casually on the podium, Wilson then gave a fascinating programme note. (I had been, shall we say, just in time for the concert, and so hadn’t availed of a printed programme.) Ravel was teacher to Vaughan Williams for an intense period that marked a transformation in his style; Gershwin adored the composer but Ravel famously recognised that the world would benefit more from a first-rate Gershwin than a second-rate Ravel; Coates was one of the few composers that Ravel sought out, on account of his command of the modern instruments (e.g. vibraphone, saxophone).

Coates’s ‘Dancing Nights’ was the only piece that I hadn’t heard before, but its stylish gaiety — with such glorious melodies and harmony! — was immediately familiar and just thoroughly enjoyable. It’s the music from this period that John Wilson has championed in his career and it is one of the very best things to do in Dublin to hear him conduct the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

Onto Ravel. I fell in love with this piece of music when i first encountered it at university. (The conductor of the Edinburgh University Chamber Orchestra at the time, Richard Jeffcoat, conducted it from the piano. I was on clarinet.) It may say ‘piano concerto’ on the cover, but it’s an incredible piece of work that treats the orchestra more as a chamber ensemble. The writing for each and every instrument demands extraordinary technique. Perhaps this is why it’s so exciting to hear: it’s just so interesting! Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, the piano soloist, was such fun to watch — his remarkable abilities allowing the jazzy energy of the music to shine. There’s a thundering piano run in octaves in the first movement that he played rather differently than I’ve heard on recordings and that was the moment for me when I knew something really special was happening.

The second movement is one of the most perfect things ever committed to paper. It is simply one of the best things in my life; one of those things that I can’t even really recommend to you because, to me, it’s so completely mine.

(If you look very closely you can see me sitting in the balcony, directly above the harp!)

There’s a gem of a book by the brilliant fiction writer Jean Echenoz that I read, and loved, a few years ago. Echenoz uses the facts of Ravel’s last ten years to create a wonderful, charming work.

Reading Room


I’m writing this surrounded by cherubs and scholars in the reading room of the National Library. I have always meant to get a Reader’s Ticket and today finally got around to it. I was in town, at the sumptuous 37 Dawson Street, filming with James and the band for the RTÉ arts show ‘The Works’, which airs this Friday (7 March) at 8.30pm.

We finished our European tour with a really brilliant show in Paris (at La Gaité Lyrique) just over a week ago, having blazed a post tropical trail through Germany, Holland and Belgium. We played in quite a range of venues, from a small 200-seater (Brotfabrik in Frankfurt — dear knows what the venue guys thought as we ferried our entire lighting rig up the narrow, metal fire escape stairs that lead up from the courtyard below), to the unexpectedly brilliant venue in the old botanic gardens in Brussels, to the classy, professional venues that seemed to be everywhere in Holland, to what was for me a real highlight: the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

It won’t be long now before we’re back on the road again for five weeks in the US and Canada. I’m really looking forward to it: it’ll be my first time visiting most of the places we’re going to. My sister and I took a trip to Philadelphia / Virginia (& Washington DC) / Long Island (& New York) / Toronto (& London, ON) in the summer of 2000. We crammed all that into one month, staying with family and friends along the way (and enjoying the hospitality of the Salvation Army in Toronto!).

This time out it’ll be a tour bus bunk all the way. That was probably the hardest thing to get used to, and there was much discussion as to the merits of top, middle, or bottom bunks. I only tried the top bunk last time, so I must experiment with the other options on this run.

I got through two books: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams and ‘A Visit From The Goon Squad’ by Jennifer Egan. Both were brilliant and weren’t a million miles apart in terms of subject matter and tone (although Jennifer Egan pulls off some beautiful chapters in voices ‘other’ than that of her primary style). I was also introduced to the delight that is ‘East Bound and Down’. It had been my intention to try and get through the last few seasons of ‘Breaking Bad’, but that would’ve meant isolating myself from the group and well, gosh darnit, if they weren’t just too good to be around! I really must try and get to it on our jaunt around America, though. The others have all seen it (and there’s more than one of them has some item of clothing related to the show), so I’d say they’re champing at the bit to talk about it sometimes!

London // Bristol // Manchester

I’m on a tour bus heading for Glasgow. Last night we played at the Barbican in London, a beautiful hall and the biggest venue we’ve done so far. I was really happy with the show and delighted that my aunt and uncle were there. I stayed with them in London for a week when I was seven. I flew over by myself, an experience that I still vividly remember bits of (not least because they “encouraged” me to keep a scrapbook every night. Something I probably resented at the time but am very glad of now!) — getting to see the cockpit, and being frightened by the ‘woman in the library’ in my Ghostbusters photo story book. Anyway, I was so glad they were there along with their elder daughter, Alice, and another of my cousins, Lauren, who’s studying music in London. Lauren was really chuffed to meet James afterwards 🙂

I was also really pleased that my friend Alan was there (enjoying a rare night out with the father of his toddler daughter’s bestie). Alan and I began our tinnitus together in one of the outhouses at my family home, playing Clapton, Hendrix, U2 — him on guitar and me on drums. Good times 🙂

The Barbican was amazing. Great backstage facilities (including a Steinway grand piano *sigh*) and a concert hall thoroughly deserving of the high regard it’s held in. Definitely a highlight for me so far. James talked a little bit about the first time he played there — solo, the long walk to the stage, hearing his footsteps echoing in the pin-drop auditorium, looking up in the darkness and seeing the exit signs glowing way up on the upper balcony… That was the only real clue as to the size of the room until the lights went up at the end and we saw everyone as we left the stage. Such a feeling! I high-fived the overhang at the stage door as I walked off 🙂

The night before we played at St George’s in the beautiful city of Bristol. I went for a little walk around in the morning when we arrived. I love the Georgian architecture and sense of public space. It also makes me a bit sad in that way that beautiful things can.

The church of St George was begun in 1821 to a design by Robert Smirke and is in the style of some of the churches I’m familiar with in Dublin, St Ann’s and St Stephen’s (‘the pepper canister’). It is now a really lovely concert venue, like The Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. One of the bar staff, Dorian Childs-Prophet, was improvising on the Steinway grand piano (*sigh*) at the end of the night when everything was packed up. I stood listening to him for a while and then, buoyed with confidence after playing our show, sang a minor-bluesy version of Gershwin’s ‘Our Love Is Here To Stay’ with him. I was so elated I left my umbrella at the venue (slightly gutted about that — it was a really good umbrella). There’s a quote by the composer Leoš Janáček in the grounds of the church, inscribed in Caithness stone by poet-sculptor Ian Hamilton-Finlay:

On the paths I’d plant oaks that would endure for centuries, and into their trunks I’d carve the words I shouted in the air.


It’s taken from Janáček’s ‘Letters to Kamila’. I conveniently found a copy at the bookshop at the end of the street for £2 — a nice souvenir of the visit.

We started the tour the night before that in the stunning setting of Manchester cathedral. Its beautiful stained glass and awe-inspiring architecture (and splendid brand-new floor!) made for a remarkable first gig of this European tour. Looking forward to the rest!



First week back…

This past week was my first back after the summer. I had a wisdom tooth out on Monday 2nd and took that whole week off to recover (although it wasn’t as stressful and traumatic as the extraction I had back in April…). It was good not to try and start back that very first week and let the kids get back into the school routine. My timetable didn’t need too much tweaking, thankfully. I’m teaching every afternoon and it all seems to work, travel-wise. Tuesday is a bit frantic and I reckon I’ll need to get a GoCar for those days, but the rest is doable on public transport.

I’m listening to the new album from Elvis Costello & The Roots, ‘Wise Up Ghost’, as I write this…

I’ve started some new things this term, too. I’ve started singing with Anúna — so far I’m getting to know the music and the group. It’s going to be a steep learning curve: the choir sing everything from memory and I’m just not used to that yet. I also have a good deal of work to do on voice production. Over the next weeks and months I’m going to seek out some voice lessons from a very experienced teacher who will be able to help me get a bigger sound.

Another new group I’ve joined is Dublin Symphony Orchestra, a long-established amateur orchestra in Dublin. I expressed my interest to their clarinettist literally years ago when we worked together on a theatre piece. Woodwind spots don’t come up very often, so I was delighted when he got in touch a few weeks ago and invited me along. We read through Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on the bare mountain’ and Wagner’s ‘Siegfried Idyll’ at the rehearsal and it was so good to be back in an orchestra. Seems like a lovely group of people, too 🙂

Something had to give with all this novelty, of course, and I’ve bid farewell to my regular gigs at The Millstone. We had a good run — I’ve played there at least once a week for over a year — and I’ve learned an awful lot in that time. Obviously my repertoire has hugely expanded, too, and I’m going to try and capture some of the breadth of the material I can do now on my YouTube channel over the next months.

Definitely try to give ‘Wise Up Ghost’ a listen — mellifluous grooves, fabulous lyrics delivered by a confident, experienced front man…

Broadcast charge

Minister for something, Pat Rabbitte, is trying to instigate a charge on every household in Ireland. He gave two reasons for this in an interview today: there’s a lot of evasion of the TV licence fee, and there’s a seemingly unfair situation currently where hotels pay a single licence fee that covers all the TVs in all the rooms whereas a cluster of separate holiday cottages, say, will have to pay separate licences.

The proposed charge is to be levied on every household, regardless of TV ownership, on the assumption that people access content via their phones or tablets or laptops. Mr Rabbitte doesn’t believe that anyone doesn’t access some kind of content through some kind of device (or, as he put it, he doesn’t think we have cavemen in this country

Jen and I actually don’t have a TV, as I’ve smilingly told licence inspectors in each place we’ve lived in our (as of today!) eight years of marriage. This televisionlessness was mainly an ideological choice. We watched DVDs on the computer, trying one of those delivery services for a while. We quickly discovered box sets and watched ‘A Touch Of Frost’, ‘Alias’, ‘Scrubs’, ‘Lost’, ‘The Wire’, ‘House’, and lots of others. We dabbled guiltily with downloading bad-quality episodes of shows from nefarious sites, and just got a subscription to Netflix there a few months ago when Arrested Development was released. (Maybe someday we’ll get around to watching all of that…) Our current vibe is ‘Lie To Me’, starring the splendid Tim Roth.

It seems to me that the Internet has changed the landscape utterly in this regard in the short space of time it’s been around. I think that what’s needed is a comprehensive survey of how people access content and how people should pay for that access. (The question of ‘if’ people should pay the Irish government to access content that does not originate here will probably not get a hearing…) We already pay VAT on the broadband services we subscribe to and the devices we watch/listen to content on. The TV licence was a tax on owning a television set and, since they were the only show in town, paid for the national broadcaster, RTÉ. I hardly ever watch or listen to RTÉ. If my content usage had a nutritional information label, RTÉ would be listed as ‘trace’. As I understand it, it’s now impossible to watch RTÉ without a subscription service like Sky, anyway?

Survey every household. “Do you have a TV? More than one? How many? How often is each one used? Do you have access to the internet at home?” Even as I write this, I realise that people aren’t going to want to give information like that to the government, though, are they? The government is making big assumptions about how people access content and if they want to bring in a universal household tax like this, they should be able to present those households with a very clear set of logical reasons for the change.

The hotel room thing is a red herring. The evasion thing is an uninformed assumption. I am just not convinced they know what they’re doing. Join the queue, says you…

Gig in the Swan Centre, Rathmines

I just finished playing a set of an hour or so as part of a community day that’s happening in Rathmines today. Great fun 🙂 (I’m writing this to the soulful strains of local jazz singer, Emilie Conway, who was on after me.) A lovely sunny day for it — although the glass dome of the centre was right above me as I powered through my more ‘up’ covers. And now I’m chilling out at ‘The House of Tea’ having afternoon tea, if you please…


Here’s what I played:

Englishman in New York – Sting
Imagine – John Lennon (via Herbie Hancock)
Why, Georgia? – John Mayer
The Wild Rover – trad.
Alberta – trad. (via Eric Clapton)
Trust You – moi
Oh, Pretty Woman – Roy Orbison
Just The Two Of Us – Bill Withers
Way Down In The Hole – Tom Waits
Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley
Better – Tom Baxter
Something For The Weekend – The Divine Comedy
Seven Days – Sting

I put out my tip jar (and my nifty cat) and got more tips than I do on the average night at the restaurant! I’m still trying to crack the secret of getting tips at the restaurant. I think the fact that I was very visible today helped, and also that I was more playing the role of a busker. In the restaurant I’m tucked away, out of the view of most of the tables, and it’s less common to tip a musician in a restaurant. Maybe people think the musician gets some of the service charge? (They almost certainly *don’t*…)

The tea I’m drinking is a delicious Darjeeling, recommended by the waitress (who sounds like she’s from the north). Kept warm on a little tea light burner. Lovely little cafe, this 🙂


Albert Herring

Firstly, delighted with myself: I completed the Crosaire crossword in The Irish Times today, most of it in less than an hour as I ate my dinner. One of the very last ones I got was rather nice.

Most uninhibited sort are confused by thief dropping farthing on road (9)

If we ‘confuse’ the letters of the word ‘are’ we get EAR…if we ‘drop’ the abbreviation of farthing (F) from thief we get THIE…and road=street=ST. All that gives us our answer: EARTHIEST (“most uninhibited sort”).

I’ve started working with a young singer/songwriter called Laura Elizabeth. I’ll be doing some playing on recordings she’s planning to make in the next while. Definitely one to watch — I’ll keep you posted. Check out her videos on YouTube.

This evening I went to the Royal Irish Academy of Music’s production of Albert Herring, an opera by Benjamin Britten. It was brilliant. The staging, for a start, was really economically managed, but pleasantly fulsome to set the scene in the happily bustling rural English town. The grocer’s boxes are full, the tables for the May Fair groan with delectable treats. Scenes were changed fluidly, only once requiring crew to come onto the stage. Costumes were a treat — Margaret Bridge as the imperious Lady Billows was gloriously bedecked in sartorial finery (to match her superb singing). Her sidekick, Florence Pike, sported an ominous eyepatch and self-important tweed skirt and jacket. The school mistress, the mayor, the young buck Sid, his sweetheart Nancy, the three kids, Albert, and his mother; all these characters were dressed in the colourful and elegantly practical clothing of an idealised inter-war England. The local policeman and vicar (played outstandingly by Padraic Rowan) wear the uniforms of their stations.

It’s a fairly evenly-distributed score, with everyone getting their chance to shine. Particularly impressive are the ‘crowd’ scenes and one ensemble that comes to mind is the one in the grocer’s in the second act. Mrs Herring and Nancy are joined by the octave-apart unison of the vicar and the school mistress (who, in the tradition of Oscar Wilde’s Dr Chasuble and Miss Prism, seem to have un petit frisson between them) — those pillars of society enveloping the fretting mother and guilt-ridden friend with stoic music. One part that feels underwritten is the mayor, a tenor role that doesn’t seem to add much to the drama. When given the podium at the May Fair to honour the newly-crowned Albert, he goes off on a self-aggrandising tangent about his council’s past achievements. Perhaps a bit of social commentary is being made…?

Britten’s music is wonderful. I’m not familiar with most of his operas, but those I have seen have convinced me that his reputation as a master of the genre is thoroughly deserved. This one, in particular, seems to be a great choice for a university level cast of the calibre of the RIAM singers. The music is supremely challenging for vocalists and orchestra, but marvellously engaging for an audience. What a delight to have such operas in English! I’m looking forward to the next one already.

A old friend of mine, Conor Mitchell, is one composer who is doing brilliant work. I went to see his opera ‘The Musician’, based on the story of the pied piper, in Belfast a few years ago and was blown away by how good it was. He just completed a set of Cabaret Songs to texts by WH Auden and Mark Ravenhill, which will be performed at Britten’s centenary celebrations in Aldeburgh later this year.

Crosaire No 14,970 (and Tim Garland)

Completed most of this one quite quickly last night and finished it this morning. But for two clues:

16d Rank fellow with you close to messy room (= FUSTY)

I actually had _UST_, and my mother impressed upon me at a young age the usage of ‘sty’ to mean a messy room. ‘You’ equating to U is a commonplace device, but I just didn’t cop ‘fellow’ as being F. As in FRA (Fellow of the Royal Academy). I got sidetracked with thinking that ‘rank fellow’ referred to a person of rank. ‘Rank’ here is, of course, the definition.

The other I missed was 24 down:

Come in for the end of the traffic light (= UNDERGO)

I got that ‘GO’ is the traffic light, and (with the benefit of the answer in front of me) that something one ‘comes in for’ – like criticism – is something that you ‘undergo’, but I don’t immediately get how ‘under’ is used for ‘the end of’.

Anyway, quite chuffed to get all the rest. Excited to get cracking on the Christmas Crosaire over the holiday.

Happy Christmas 🙂

PS Listening to an album called ‘Rising Tide’ by saxophonist Tim Garland recorded in New York in 2002. We saw him in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London a few years ago with a band that included the two amazing players who play with Garland on this, Geoffrey Keezer on piano and Joe Locke on vibes & marimba. There are a couple of pieces, the long-form work ‘Sonata’ and the (regular size!) ‘Fantasy’ that feature a string quartet. ‘Sonata’ was, according to the liner notes, written for author Paulo Coelho. All beautifully inventive and with the ‘tonality dial’ at just the level I like! Some of the vibraphone runs are just breathtaking – check it out 🙂

The Dark Knight Rises

Such an enjoyable film! These are just some scattered thoughts.

This most recent take on the Batman story by director Christopher Nolan has been characterised by its brilliant baddies. A deep-seated desire for revenge fuels every one of the characters who rise above the throng of Gotham to engage in the struggle for its soul, and deception is very much the weapon of choice.

Despite having seen promo shots of Anne Hathaway in a catsuit, I was still delightfully surprised at her deft handling of the mask of Catwoman’s character. Gone is the weirdness and slight supernatural flavour given to the character Michelle Pfeiffer so memorably embodied. Here is a truly suitable partner for Bruce Wayne.

Perhaps it’s just my overactive crossword cortex, but I wondered at the link between her name, Selina Kyle, and the apt adjective ‘slinky’!

Bane was amazing. A true monster, right down to his buried heart. The tenderness with which his mask is repaired by the object of his affection was beautiful.

A few musical things stood out. The music that plays at Miranda Tate’s charity benefit (to which Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle dance) is Ravel’s gorgeous ‘Pavane pour une infante défunte’, which translates as ‘Funeral music for a dead princess’. Later in the film, we learn just how much the death of a princess has brought about Gotham’s apocalypse.
There is a great moment, as Bruce Wayne fails in his second attempt to escape his prison, when the tensely pulsing strings suddenly chug to an embarrassed slower tempo. An extremely satisfying musical joke, pitched perfectly, as was all the humour in the film. (Sweeping generalisation, perhaps…your thoughts?)

Lovely reappearance by Cillian Murphy, who gets a great line as he pronounces sentence on an unfortunate victim. The hint of scarecrow in his costume was bang on.

One last thing I noticed was how the timescale of this trilogy is believable. There aren’t endless villains, nor is there endless time. A man – for that is what Batman is, after all – has but a short time to live. As remarkable as Bruce Wayne’s physical transformation is during the course of the film, he is not superhuman. There is a limit to personal vendetta. But, as this Olympic year has shown us, there is always a fresh generation of achievement, a fresh hunger to carry the ancient fire of the gods.

The Mucky Duck

I played a solo gig last night in The Mucky Duck pub in Celbridge. I haven’t done very many gigs where it’s just me and the piano (when I have done gigs in the past, it’s mostly been on guitar). It was great, though, and I really enjoyed myself. Feedback was good from the audience — a nice mix of friends, punters sitting listening, applauding punters having conversations and food… Crucially, too, the proprietor and the guy who did my sound also thought I did well. The wonderfully nice guy who did sound for me — Mike Wilkins — took some video which I will hopefully be able to post up here in the next week or two.

I played all covers, some of which worked better than others. Ones that went particularly well were John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, done in the more up-tempo style of Herbie Hancock’s recent version (which, if you don’t know, you *must* check out…the rest of the album is absolutely brilliant, too. Seriously, iTunes, now…), also Dire Straits’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and Michael Bublé’s version of ‘Quando, Quando, Quando’ (although, sadly on this occasion without Jenny’s harmonious corollary). I did some jazz arrangements by Jack Long from a great book I have, ‘Blues for Piano’, although it was hard to read in the low light, so I didn’t enjoy that so much. Must get a wee LED gooseneck lamp…

click for their page on Menupages (a restaurant rating site)…

Anyway, really hope to do more of this type of gig. Maybe a restaurant or hotel… I’ve enquired with a place on Dame Street that’s looking for a musician, so we’ll see what comes of that!