What an extraordinary year this has been so far. Excuse me not having kept the news up-to-date on a regular basis – there simply hasn’t been time.
So, the family headed to the incomparable Cruit Island off the Donegal coast for Christmas. I did take Christmas day off, but continued working on the opera whilst there, doing at least something every day, nudging things forward. We pottered home again at the very end of December. The librettist, Glenn Patterson, had delivered the full and final draft of his beautiful libretto just before the holidays, and I knew once back, that things would necessarily shift into another gear. The vista was daunting, to say the least – to have choral and soloists’ parts finished by the end of March, and orchestration completed by the start of May, with performances mid-June. Knowing that this insanely-busy period was upcoming, in August 2015 I made a lot of reservations for the first five months of 2016 at the sanctuary that is The Tyrone Guthrie Centre. This artists’ retreat in County Monaghan has become a second home for me, the place into which I disappear when I have a major workload out in front of me. It offers one space to work in a stunning environment with no distractions – it’s entirely down to the self to create. A form of privileged isolation, it has saved my bacon on numerous occasions over the last eighteen years. So every two or three weeks I’d find myself there, working as many hours as I could for an intense week or ten days. Flat out. After this pummelling, I’d go home, realign the head for a day and then continue working on what was achieved there. And this pattern repeated itself for five months.
As is the way with freelance composers and musicians, I was spinning a few other plates at the same time. In February, I was delighted to have had the opportunity to direct a performance of a piece I wrote a few years ago – 100 fiddles, 55° north – a suite for 100 traditional fiddle players. Commissioned by NAFCO (North Atlantic Fiddle Convention) back in 2012, this was, as you might imagine, a rare invite to gather together a hundred traditional fiddle players from Ireland and Scotland and to perform the work in the wonderful surroundings of The Glassworks in Derry, as part of the inaugural Derry International Irish Music Festival. All went swimmingly, those massed forces playing their hearts out. Another most-rewarding project I was also directing in February was the second outing of Connections, run under the auspices of ArtsEkta, an intercultural, cross-ethnic arts organisation in Belfast. Drawn together for the project were musicians from India, China, Pakistan, Bulgaria and Ireland, all living in Belfast. This year, we also included two primary school choirs in the line-up…..Holy Cross Boys and Campbell College, and along with the musicians, they premiered a new song I wrote specifically for the occasion – River of Hope. The performance was in the exquisite surroundings of the Harbour Commissioners’ Office, on the banks of the Lagan. Over March and April, there were more visits to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and writing continued on the opera, and choral and soloist parts were delivered on schedule, and the full orchestral score handed over to the conductor, David Brophy, early May.
Now, another major piece I was working on during this time was a section of a concerto for uilleann pipes and chamber orchestra, commissioned by Barry Douglas and Camerata Ireland, for a performance in May at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, part of a major cultural festival celebrating arts from Ireland over the last century. The superb young Wexford piper Mark Redmond was secured as soloist and he gave a spectacular premiere under the ever-musical eye of Barry Douglas himself. And a few days after that, the iconic dancer Jean Butler and myself gave two sell-out performances (sold-out a month in advance) of our duet for dancer and cellist, this is an Irish dance, also in the Kennedy Centre, as part of the same festival. Those ten days in DC were most rewarding….
And so back to Belfast at the very end of May, and preparations for the opera in full swing, the mighty Belfast Opera Community chorus, under the terrific direction of Donal McCrisken, handling demanding music quite brilliantly. We had now locked off on the title too – Long Story Short: The Belfast Opera, and all three performances (1000 tickets) sold out in a few hours…..this added to the palpable fever of activity in planning and set-building and lighting and rehearsing, and once the orchestra arrived in, things hurtled headlong through production week. The unique skills, musicality and uber-dedication of conductor David Brophy were beyond compare – so brilliantly harnessing the forces of orchestra, chorus and four soloists – Bruno Caproni, Bríd Ní Ghruagáin, Ross Scanlon and Rebekah Rodgers. All three performances got full-house immediate standing ovations – some buzz, truly. The opera deserves more outings, even if I do say so….
It’s now the start of July, and I’m working on an oratorio for performance in November – in the National Concert Hall, Dublin, with the National Symphony Orchestra and a chorus of 300. After that, lots more that I’ll share with you as the year unfolds. No rest for this wicked man.