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2007-12-19 NCH Dublin

reviewed by John

This year my wife also came to Dublin with me, basically because she had never seen Ireland before. She was also a willing lamb to the concert slaughter too – her first time experiencing the Celtic Tenors live, though she has been exposed to their music and video performances frequently over the past few years.

Our trip got off to an inauspicious start, in that we had to drive just over 300 miles to catch a ferry from Holyhead, on the island of Anglesey in North Wales. We had plenty of time until we hit what is called a main road which cuts diagonally from the English Midlands straight through to Anglesey. It is a stunningly beautiful route, unless you are trying to catch a ferry and are caught behind endless large lorries on very winding roads. We arrived after speeding ridiculously for the last 20 miles or so, with the petrol gauge showing completely empty, but we were about 5 minutes late. After some speedy alternative arrangements had been made, we set off and arrived only maybe 3 hours later than had been the intention. Next issue was the accommodation – I have stayed in the same hotel several times, without incident. I can sleep through thunderstorms and (for US readers) tractor-pulls (I kid you not), but the slightest noise keeps Frances awake. She claims she got one hour of sleep each night. That she stayed awake through even the concert is a testament to the power of adrenalin!

On the evening of the concert, we met a close and sparkling friend for dinner, and then walked up to the National Concert Hall through Grafton Street with beautiful christmas lights. They are without a doubt the most tasteful lights I have ever seen. Solely white bulbs, and what the photo does not reveal is that at any one
moment maybe 10 or 15 of the lights would be flashing, giving the impression of a shimmering sheet of light. I have long felt that Ireland does textures better than any other country I have visited – whether it be fabric, rolling green hills of brilliant green, or ploughed fields which look like corduroy from the air; the Irish just seem to have perfected balance and taste in most things (other than perhaps the tumult in Temple Bar until 4 a.m.), and especially, of course, in music.

I always feel ecstatic going into the NCH. It has the best acoustics I have ever experienced, and the sound system separates and balances all broadcast sounds in a way no other venue I have been in manages to do. Every year it is possible to hear each separate voice and all its nuances, and the blending with the orchestra's sounds is streets ahead of anywhere else. I quite often join the audience for live national radio broadcasts with the BBC Concert Orchestra in London, and even the sound balance there does not outdo the NCH.

So, the show. I'm always won over before a note is sung – I think it's the building's atmosphere, the time of year, and the knowledge that the performers can be home again with their families which always lends a special edge and comfort to this annual concert. I got off to the perfect start as I took my seat. A lady was sitting
at the end of my row, and I asked her as politely as I know how if she would excuse me as I passed. She gave me one of those looks, and simply said `No'. Unfortunately, therefore, I had to resort to vicious threats – she soon moved then. I told her I knew people who can knock the frail down so fast if they obstruct her passage to a good seat, that it takes your breath away. Lovely to start an evening by laughing out loud with a complete stranger – I hope she enjoyed our encounter as much as I did, whoever she is.

The orchestra (I should guess maybe 12 string players) plus Martin Quinn on guitar and his brother Andrew on percussion took their places, then Danny was introduced. I am still in awe of Danny's posture – he has the straightest back I have ever seen, and he maintains the position throughout. I don't have the song list, but I know that the first song was very upbeat, and not at all typically classical or typically CT either. I get the impression that one of the contributions of Danny and Daryl to concert appearances over recent months has been a more relaxed and sometimes more upbeat program, with, dare I say it, more choreography – I suspect Daryl would constitute serious dance floor competition, for example. There are prices to pay, of course – this time my beloved `Caledonia' was missing from the repertoire, though there were replacements which more than compensated, as I shall mention later. The gentlemen arrived on stage wreathed in smiles, and received a very warm reception; it was not long before they were expressing their gratitude to be home again, despite the exciting times they had enjoyed touring North America and the Middle East in recent times.

I had been told to expect to relish their adaptation of `Song for Ireland', and boy, was that an understatement. It's a song some of us are already familiar with from concerts a couple of years back, since Deirdre has featured it during her appearances at times. You have to hear this – it's another of those songs! This is another of those wonderful compositions that only seem to emanate from the pens of Irish composers. Rather like `The Red Headed Girl', this one also weaves and meanders through the most exquisite melodies. It's a song which could have been written specifically for Daryl, James, and Matthew. James started the song off, gliding from phrase to phrase with incredible precision and feeling, and by the end of the second line, my spirit was sighing in admiration that such a perfect marriage of performer and melody could be achieved. When they reached the break into harmony, I was already transported. Whichever of the three wrote the arrangement has written a masterpiece – as many know, harmony is my `thing', and this is superlative by even the most exacting standards. This must be a recording. MUST! And we should collectively ensure that it is promoted properly too – there have been moments in the past when I have felt that perfect opportunities were completely wasted (`Ten
thousand tears' is the most glaring example). This song has to be a promoter's dream – three Irish singers, a song full of gorgeous home sentiment, and some of the best voices of their genre I have ever heard. I sincerely hope history does not repeat itself IF they record and issue the song. It is simply irresistible.

Other notable pieces were `Gaudete', which Rianne mentioned in her review. I find some carols/hymns of this kind too heavy for my taste, but this one really hits the spot. Light, fast, difficult to sing, I should imagine, but carried off with such poise and obvious enjoyment by all three. The Christmas song and carol medley, which
had the entire audience joining in, was clearly one of the highlights of the evening for many in the audience, judging by the applause. `O Holy Night' was truly a spiritual experience. And to round of the first half, a song which I don't think I have heard since my childhood (!!!) – `The Holy City' – the one whose chorus
starts `Jerusalem, Jerusalem, open your gates and sing….' (at least those are what I think the lyrics are). It's the perfect vehicle for tenor `build to an astounding crescendo' techniques, and was the perfect ending to the first half of the show.

Donna was, as Donna always is, extraordinary in her performances. I still find it difficult to believe she is still in her teens, such is the depth of her tone, and her level of assurance on stage. She looked utterly stunning throughout, not least when draped in that beautiful red dress she has on in my photo. It was gathered into
large horizontal pleats (I don't know how else to describe it) right down to the floor. The colour is breathtaking. Her charm is nothing less either (even though she did not sing `Katie', which I simply love to hear (though I can now – see later)).

The sustained high note in the middle of `All out of love' warranted the interruption of applause, and the other truly remarkable performance was the now standard concert fare, `Shenandoah'. If my memory serves me correctly, this song was not in last year's repertoire, so for many members of the audience, this would have
been the first hearing. I cannot imagine that they can have been any less impressed than I was – sheer perfection from the first note to the last. The atmosphere that their performance of this song generates is such that you almost dare not breathe for fear of disturbing the aura. And no matter how many times I hear the song
performed, I still sit tensely on the edge of my seat throughout.

A few side observations. New outfits for the second half. Dark, dark blue or black material with a paisley self-coloured pattern in the material (back to texture again) you can see it in Matthew's waistcoat/vest if you look carefully.

Donna's debut album has just been released (entitled `Prima'), and was on sale in the foyer. It DOES include `Katie' so I am very happy. It also includes a lovely version of `Song for Ireland' too. And my own special interest track (because of the choral harmonies it contains) – `Laudate Dominum' by Mozart. There are some touching thanks on the sleeve notes – James, Matthew, Daryl, David, Deirdre, Niall, Matt Svobodny, and our own delightful Joyce Covington. I am
not sure what the CD's availability is since there is no label identified on the sleeve.

Almost through……much of the show was recorded for North American PBS promotional purposes, I understand (it was easy to overlook this, since the two cameras were very unobtrusive). However, I don't think anyone should get up their hopes for a commercial release – we were told that it really was for promotional broadcast only. However, this ought to do the trick wherever it is shown, because it forms a record of a concert of the highest calibre, and can only serve to
build on what I hope will be a resoundingly successful period in the group's career development.

Can I close this epic, please, with a sincere wish for a peaceful and happy holiday season for everyone who manages to get to the end of it?

John