Category Archives: what I’m up to

Christmas success for New Dublin Voices

New Dublin Voices had a very busy Christmas season with concerts in Navan, Dublin (performing for the Friends of the National Gallery, singing carols in Dickensian garb on the steps of The Gate theatre before the opening night of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ and doing a lunchtime concert in the National Concert Hall) and Blanchardstown.  We also kept popping up on television – appearing on the teen segment ‘TTV’, on the fashion show ‘Off The Rails’, at the end of the news one day, and on the broadcast of us singing with The Priests at their concert in Armagh.

The icing on the Christmas cake was winning the prize for the best performance of the RTÉ lyric fm Christmas Carol Commission by Elaine Agnew.

Here’s my recording of the ladies of New Dublin Voices, conducted by Bernie Sherlock, with me accompanying on piano, singing the lovely Curoo curoo.

Our first concert in 2009 will be of music from the 1560s and the 1960s.  First rehearsal is on Tuesday…

two new recordings

These tracks were recorded by my talented friend Paul Donnan in the beautiful entrance hall of Powerscourt in County Wicklow.  I have a fascination, inherited from my father, with Irish ‘Big Houses’.  Powerscourt has its own special sadness – it was destroyed by fire in 1974 – and this is never far from one’s thoughts within its bare-brick interior (restored in 1996).  I dare you to examine unmoved the photos of the house from before the fire that are displayed inside.

It was a real treat to be playing my songs in that place while the winter night seethed with jealousy outside.

I chose two: my latest song, ‘Face in a frame’ and a song I wrote about five years ago which I call ‘Little boy’.  I realise now that it’s finally recorded that it’s as much about the little girl…any ideas on what it should be called?  (Paul called it ‘Tonight’.)  Click on the titles to listen.

Face in a frame

Carry my love over the ocean; bring him back here, back to my arms.  Accuse me of greed – I don’t care for reason – I just know I need him keeping me warm.  The neighbours are kind – they smile and make small talk – but I politely decline when they ask to tea.  I couldn’t help counting the chairs at the table.  The catch in my throat: “No, everything’s fine”.  Your face in a frame (last summer’s vacation).  Your coat on a hook on the back of the door.  I walk in the rain reliving old memories; each line on your face the same as before.  Our boy’s growing tall, he’s stronger each day now.  He asks me no questions, I tell him no lies.  I can see in his face that he wants to protect me.  I wonder can he see the same thing in mine?  Your face in a frame (our boy on your shoulders).  Your coat on a hook on the back of the door.  I’ll try to explain when he’s a bit older.  Oh why can’t things stay the same as before?

Little boy

Little boy, what have you done?  Little boy, what have you done?  You’re so big and strong.  You’re so big and strong.  Little girl, what have you done?  Little girl, what have you done?  You’re so beautiful.  You’re so beautiful.  Tonight the angels rejoice over you.  Little boy, what have you done?  Little boy, what have you done?  I’ll wipe your tears away.  I’ll wipe your tears away.  Little girl, what have you done?  Little girl, what have you done?  I’ll wipe your tears away.  I’ll wipe your tears away.  Tonight the angels rejoice over you.

Irish Times article

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Pictured at Our Lady's Hospital, Crumlin was cellist Grainne Hope, Jonathan Wilson as Tchaikovsky, Amy Jordan and flautist Julie Maisel. Photographs: Jason Clarke Photography

In tune with children’s spirits

Sylvia Thompson

DAVID NOONAN (15) happily plays the chime bars alongside children of all ages who sing and tap their bells to Christmas songs. The teenager in Transition Year in Ard Scoil La Salle in Raheny, Dublin came down from his ward in Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin a little annoyed but it didn’t take long for him to cheer up. “Music is always a distraction for me. The workshop calmed me down. It was very enjoyable,” says Noonan, who plays the guitar, drums and piano when he’s at home. Amy Ferguson’s mother, Veronica, also enjoyed the music workshop led by cellist Grainne Hope and flautist Julie Maisel. Amy, who turns five this week, had a heart transplant two years ago. “We’re just happy that she’s here. We nearly lost her,” says her mother. “She loves singing and dancing and I love music myself.”

One of the striking aspects of this new series of music workshops in children’s hospitals is how the children of different ages are relaxed by the encounter with real classical musical instruments and the musicians. “You never know who will come so it’s important that we reach all children through the stories, the music we play and the songs we sing together,” says Grainne Hope.

Our Lady’s Hospital is one of three Dublin hospitals – the National Children’s Hospital in Tallaght and the Children’s University Hospital, Temple Street are the others – that will host Kids Classics music workshops over the next year.”Seventy per cent of the children who come into hospital have long-term illnesses such as genetic disorders, heart conditions or cancer which require ongoing care,” says Geraldine Regan, director of nursing at Our Lady’s Hospital.

“Because they will spend a significant proportion of their lives in hospital, we have to embrace a holistic approach to the child and look after their personal, social and even spiritual development as well as their physical and medical needs.”Children learn how to interact with the world through play and music is a large element of that,” she adds. “It lifts their spirits at a time when they are faced with many daunting situations such as operations, tests, X-rays and other procedures.”

The Kids Classics series of workshops will be held once a month in each hospital from now until December 2009.

Each workshop will explore a different composer. The workshop The Irish Times witnessed was called Tchaikovsky’s Christmas Party and during it Tchaikovsky (Jonathan Wilson) read the story of the Nutcracker while Maisel and Hope performed excerpts from it. “Later, we will have Beethoven’s Bad Hair Day and a day in the life of Mozart,” explains Hope. The series is funded by the Learn and Explore Department at the National Concert Hall (NCH). “Our aim is to bring music to every corner of Ireland so we would like to develop this programme further,” explains Katie Wink, the Learn and Explore manager at the NCH.Other outreach programmes run by the NCH include Up the Tempo in which musicians run composition workshops in schools. The National Chamber Choir also recently held music and singing workshops in nursing homes and the Coolmine Therapeutic Community.

The musicians themselves also enjoy the contact with people outside of traditional performance venues. “Playing music is such a human interaction and something very special happens in places like this,” says Jonathan Wilson who played guitar and doubled as Tchaikovsky for the workshop. “I was particularly struck by one girl in the group who was blind and yet had the best rhythm of all the children when we played and sang together,” he adds. According to Maisel, “There are plenty of studies that emphasise the benefit of music and then, we never know what impact the workshops might have. Some of the children might be encouraged to learn to play a musical instrument after participating.”

One recent study struck a chord for Regan. “Dr Dan Penny from the Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital spoke at our foundation day last month,” she explains. “And, he quoted a study of children with cardiac conditions whose social development was delayed due to the lack of play in their lives.” She continues, “Children in hospitals see the grim side of life. They are very good at coping in difficult situations but it is studies like this one that emphasise how important it is for us to give them access to opportunities to play and learn,” she says.

“In this environment of containing costs, you have to look at new ways of doing things and this partnership with the National Concert Hall allows us to look at the social development of children in a cost-effective way,” she adds.

A beautiful Christmas song

I was introduced to Eclecticity today by Rowan Manahan, whose witty and informative blog I would recommend to anyone who likes to laugh and has to work for a living.

I sing in a choir and, it being the season, we’ve been singing lots of Christmas music.  Yesterday, in fact, we barged on screen during the link after Home and Away on RTÉ two and sang ‘Ding dong merrily on high’, complete with santa hats.  You can see it on the website until the end of the month – find ‘Monday 15th December part three’.

And so, via Eclecticity, I’d like to share this song with you, ‘Grown up Christmas list’.  It’s performed here by Amy Grant and was written by David Foster and Linda Thompson-Jenner.  (If you want an eye-watering biography, look no further than Mr Foster’s: the man is a legend!)  This song has been recorded by a few big names, but I think this version is the most honest and touching.  One for the virtual stocking…?

last month in a nutshell

It has been a very busy four weeks since I last posted something.  Here are some highlights:

  • the first stage of the Infant Imaginings project drew to a close.  Helene Hugel and I have been working on a number of fifteen-minute pieces for babies (between three and twenty-four months) over the past while and we presented them last week in Tallaght Community Arts Centre and in a health clinic.  All being well (i.e. if the funding comes through!) we’ll be developing our work further in the second half of next year.
  • I met a singer-songwriter who I really enjoyed – Audrey Ryan, from Maine.  The first time was at a singer-songwriter night in The Stables in Mullingar where I was playing with Hamlet.  It was Halloween, she played ‘The Monster Mash’ (it caught on in a flash, for your information).  Second time was at The Song Room the following week and she’d been up all night watching Obama win the election.
  • I did a schools project in Navan and wrote a lovely song for the kids to sing (which I’ll post soon).
  • New Dublin Voices did two concerts which featured the beautiful choral music of Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, a Finnish composer.  The choir sang one of his pieces last year, the exquisite Die Stimme des Kindes, and we reprised that and two of the works that helped make him one of the very best composers writing for mixed voice choirs today: Canticum Calamatatis Maritimae and Four Shakespeare Songs.  I urge you to download this stunning version of Die Stimme des Kindes performed by the all-male American choir, Chanticleer.
  • Hamlet played his Bewley’s theatre gig to a nicely-packed room backed by ‘The Handsome Strangers’ – me on keys/cajon/backing vocals, Barry Rycraft on double bass and Satya Darcy on drums.  There are some videos on Hamlet’s Facebook group, which you can join for updates on his musical adventures.  Next on the horizon is the recording this weekend of his debut EP…

music and video, chocs and blood

Yesterday Hamlet and I went into the MUZU TV studio to record a video for their site (to be released at some pertinent date in the future).  I arrived in first, bearing my spine-compressingly-large keyboard up to the second floor, and was greeted by the amiable Martin who furnished me with a cup of tea.  He was taking a straw poll at the time – Roses or Quality Street? My bid for Quality Street was overturned and, a short while later, a tin of Roses appeared to the general delight of all.  I notice Cadbury’s have banished foil completely, allowing for easier access to such delights as the caramel barrel.  I happily munched away on fistfuls of chocolatey goodness despite holding firm to my conviction that Quality Street is a more interesting mix of sweets.  Truly stalwart stuff on my part, you’ll agree.

The video recording was really laidback and the guys made our visit really enjoyable.  We recorded ‘I am a man’ and ‘El Capitane’ and then Hamlet was interviewed by one of the editors of the marvellous (and now free) State magazine, Phil Udell.  The MUZU TV site has loads of really great archive video footage on it as well as all the latest stuff and Phil asked Hamlet to have a look for a video he’d like to talk about to camera.  They happened on an interview David Bowie did with Russell Harty which was just fascinating.  The subtle tension and awkwardness as Harty repeatedly goads Bowie with provocative assertions is remarkable in this age of nonsense-talking TV interviewers.

I had a look at the site today – The Ting Tings’ channel shows off the inventive videos to their infectious songs; old interviews with Sting, Andy Summers and Stuart Copeland (seperately) on The Tube oozing attitude and talking about their various non-Police dalliances; Paula Yates interviewing Michael Hutchence; Zoe Conway stunning the crowd at the Balcony TV awards – there are armloads of gems to discover.

I picked up a copy of State, too.  I like their layout (amazingly devoid of excess advertising) and the quality writing about music and (almost) nothing else.  The rating system in the reviews section is good, too, using a kind of temperature gauge instead of any numbers, stars or anything so quantifiable.  I bought Messiah J & The Expert’s new album, ‘From the word go’, on the back of reading the review.

On Wednesday I played a solo set at The Song Room (Trust you, The boy who cried wolf, Radiohead’s Backdrifts, Face in a frame, and Kings of Leon’s Sex on fire).  Hamlet’s guitar was in surgery after sustaining a nasty injury at last week’s Song Room so he used mine for his set.  The slight difference in the dimensions of our guitars coupled with Hamlet’s masochistic playing style meant that my brand new strings got a bit of a respray…

'Hep C' Hamlet, they called him...

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virtual busking

I’ve started a new page on the site, ‘Any requests…?’, up there at the top right. The idea is that people (you?) might send in a request for a song you would like me to record and I’ll put it up on the page. I sent a note to my fans on Facebook (all two dozen of them – legends every one 🙂 – follow the Facebook link on the left and become one today!) and got a couple of interesting songs suggested within a day or two. Please keep the ideas coming and let me know what you think of the ones I’ve already posted. Don’t worry about being critical: I have to approve the comments before they appear on the site anyway!

If you do like the songs then please consider throwing some virtual coins into my virtual PayPal guitar case. If you don’t want to do that then please tell your friends about the site, link to it on your blog, your Facebook site etc.

Keep up to date with the updates to the blog by subscribing to the RSS feed (button at the top left). I keep a folder called ‘blogs’ on my Firefox toolbar, so I can quickly check the blogs I subscribe to.

Never a dull moment…

I sometimes look back on my diaries from my student days (sadly only appointment diaries: I’m not a memoir person…yet) and marvel at the sheer variety of things I used to do. Well, since beginning life as a freelancer, it sometimes feels quite similar and my diary for this weekend was pleasingly mottled with some interesting engagements.

So, on Saturday, Jen and I (along with Margaret O’Shea, a fellow New Dublin Voice, and her friend John Wade) went in to a TV studio to take part as backing vocalists in the broadcast of a music segment for a show. I hadn’t done this kind of work before and it was good fun and actually pretty challenging.  The song was a track called ‘The way old friends do’. I didn’t know the song before – it’s an old ABBA number – and my opinion about the song has fluctuated wildly in the short time of my acquaintance with it. I just watched a video of ABBA singing it and it’s rather poignant watching them perform together.

This morning I played keyboard at the service in St George and St Thomas (Church of Ireland) church on Cathal Brugha Street. The regular organist was away and I agreed to dep(utise) for him although, not being an organist, I used the church’s Roland keyboard. I grew up in the Church of Ireland, in fact the minister of St George and St Thomas was coincidentally a curate at my church in the North when I was a teenager. I enjoyed the warm hospitality of the people and the familiar liturgy. We sang ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ at the end of the service and, despite being few in number, the congregation made a joyful noise!

Breaking radio silence

It has been too long! Jen and I have just moved house and yesterday the nice man from chorus ntl came and installed my lovely new 12Mb connection (we’ll see how that works out, but it’s pretty zippy; eircom’s top package is only 3Mb). What’s with all these internet providers and their lower case names?! I am partial to a bit of lower case myself, it must be said.

Lots has happened over the last couple of weeks:

  • spent a lovely weekend in Donegal, like Mediterranean lovely! I brought the guitar along and my book of Michael Hedges transcriptions. Have discovered an out-of-tune fret on my guitar which I’ll have to get the guys in the shop to have a look at.
  • New Dublin Voices went on a trip to France to compete in the 37th Florilège Vocal de Tours. We had a crazy time getting there – our 6.25am flight was diverted to Lille…driver we’d booked wouldn’t wait or drive to get us…the coach company had made us pay in full in advance…we had to splash out for the TGV to Tours…!! After all that we had to perform in the qualifying rounds once we got there. Amazingly we got through to the final of the class for choirs of 14-24 singers, disappointingly losing out to choirs from Iceland and Ukraine. (Apparently it’s not ‘THE Ukraine’). We did, however, win a special prize for performance of a new work: Enda Bates’s mesmeric Sea Swell. Here’s a recording of the piece that Enda made last week in the Unitarian church on Stephen’s Green where we rehearse:  Here’s a recording, too, of our performance of Poulenc’s Hodie Christus natus est in the final:  Such a good weekend and I’m sure there’ll be pictures soon. It was, as ever, good to hear other choirs and to get to spend a bit more time together as a group 🙂
  • Last night NDV undertook the mammoth task of recording all the pieces we worked on for the competitions this term. We had the use of the Church of Ireland’s educational centre chapel, which has a lovely acoustic and gave us the aural gratification necessary to get us through the sixteen-odd pieces! I took the opportunity to try out my new Zoom H4 recording device and it’ll be interesting to hear how it compares to the more expensive mics that Derby was using to record us.