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2009-10-16 Liverpool

reviewed by John

 
I was very happy to travel to Liverpool for last Friday's concert. Firstly, it was the first concert in YEARS on my home territory, and secondly it gave me the opportunity to revisit the second city in which I worked during my career. I moved from Liverpool many decades ago, but I have never in all that time been to another place which matched it in spirit, and more especially in its sense of humour, which is absolutely unequalled anywhere else. An otherwise innocent observation made by someone speaking `Scouse', as the local dialect is known, becomes outrageously funny when delivered straight-faced. The true story about the pigeon flying into the window of a double-decker bus epitomizes everything anyone needs to know about the humour of Liverpool. Unfortunately it is a story which cannot be written  it loses every bit of its impact. Get over it  dry your eyes! After the show, Anja introduced me to some friends of hers, one of whom fitted the bill perfectly; she didn't even need to speak  just that certain look had me giggling.

Against this comfortable and familiar backdrop, therefore, I made my way to The Philharmonic Hall, which I had never visited before. On this occasion, I had a family member from Cheshire (which is adjacent to Merseyside, and is from where I originally hail) plus her neighbour with me  more about what they thought later. Taking anyone along to a concert where you really rate the performers is always an anxious undertaking  on this occasion I had no need for concern, as I shall explain later.

The Philharmonic Hall is within sight of both the major Liverpool cathedrals. The auditorium is large, but not huge, but the stage is grand by any standards. It reminded me very much of a US band shell so prevalent in American parks. Very deep, rather like a truncated half funnel with of course the wider end facing the audience. It was not difficult to appreciate that such a design would lend itself very well to orchestral acoustics. The orchestra settled in in good time, allowing me one of my greatest indulgences  the extended sound of an orchestra tuning its instruments. One of my most favoured sounds, charged with anticipation as it always is. Colm took his seat quietly, and the lights went down; after maybe a hushed (endless) minute or so, the lights came back up again. Cue nervous laughter. Another 30 seconds or so went by - it seemed a LONG time  and then the conductor appeared, and the music began. I have attached the set list at the end of this message (kindly supplied by Rianne), along with the lyrics to what was one of the evening's highlights.

Since we ALL know that I can go on and on for ever (yes, and then some), I shall try to confine myself to items of special interest or some attempt to describe new material on this occasion, which sadly will be the last time I shall be writing for a couple of years since I am about to go to Sydney, Australia on a 16 month work contract which presented itself completely out of the blue this summer. Other Liverpool attendees please note  you have to write in future.

The concert started on a worrying note  `Ireland's Call' is a rousing introduction for any performance, and on this occasion the orchestra was a little too rousing  their noise and, I suspect the acoustics of the hall, almost drowned out the singers' voices. Hard to imagine, given the full `in your face' nature of this song, but true. Matthew, in his farewell remarks, mentioned the sound engineer for the evening, and Irishman whose name was Darren, I think. Darren clearly knew his job very well, because thereafter the sound balance was perfect, and my initial apprehension dissipated. More than that, there was (at least to my ears) a different prominence to certain voices at certain times, and thus lower register notes became more prominent that some of the high Cs of which we hear so much. The result was at times a gentler mellowness to some of the songs  and in every single case, a cause for listening closer and more attentively than ever to pick up on the route each voice was traveling.

Now time to mention the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. My guess is that it was between 40 and 50 strong, and MAGNIFICENT. I was happy to see that the newspaper review mentioned the fact that they were accorded a very well-earned accolade (Rianne was right  Matthew made the remarks  Linda please note: James is not the one you need to get!); I have a very special place in my appreciation of things musical for the enveloping warmth of strong violins and cellos, and never more than on this night, when the waves of sound cascading over the audience were totally overwhelming. This was particularly the case during `The town I loved so well' which is a highly emotive song and is always sung by the tenors with such heartfelt sincerity, and `Time to say goodbye'. I think it is enough to say that I don't think I ever heard such monumental strings in a live concert&.ever. I have to concede, though, that there were one of two (thankfully short) occasions when I thought the orchestra were slightly languid and perhaps a little slow, and noticed Matthew especially using his whole body to indicate that a slight speeding up of tempo was needed. But these were minor criticisms in what was otherwise a wonderful tour de force in terms of orchestral support. And it is probably appropriate that I ought to mention here the continued excellence of Colm's piano support. He has a way of making his part of the score sound completely perfect in its own right, and there is a plumpness and roundness to the sound he can generate (this time on a Steinway, which no doubts helps) which is the perfect complement to the tenors' voices. The orchestra were not employed throughout the program, and on those occasions when Colm and the tenors were left to their own devices, there was no dilution of the musical perfection we were experiencing; quite the opposite in many ways, in that the small and intimate ensemble is more familiar to most recent concert-goers.

`The fields of Athenry' does not routinely feature (at least outside Ireland), and its announcement drew hushed gasps of welcome from the audience, who were experiencing what was the first night's entertainment in Liverpool's 2009 Irish festival, an event which lasts for two weeks. `Nella Fantasia' was gorgeous, despite the obvious absence of a soprano guest, and was perfectly executed, by both singers and orchestra  violins and cellos especially, of course, since they feature so prominently in the orchestration.

`The Holy City' was the piece which really made me sit up and analyse the acoustics. Where certain resounding notes ended, there was a continuing resonance throughout the hall. I know that this number is one of Beate's favourites, and she was in the audience on Friday after her recent bereavement  I am sure she will have savoured that performance as much and more than most. It is quite an exhausting piece to watch and hear, oozing dramatic impact as it does. Definitely a special highlight on this occasion.

Mention has been made of the Canadian contingent in the audience who made themselves known when James asked `Are there any Canadians here tonight?'. What the reviewer did not say was that they were a very exuberant part of the audience, who were very excited to hear their country singled out for mention.

Without any announcement, the trio launched into my show stopper, Lennon and McCartney's `If I fell', which I think dates back to `A hard day's night'. It's not necessarily one of the most prominent Beatles' songs, but it has a gentleness and emotional anticipation about it which I find irresistible. I gather that it has been a feature of CT concerts for a very long time, but I had never heard it before. It is taken at a slightly faster pace than the composers' version, but it is in the arrangement that the unique CT magic lies. I remember saying how another tune `undulated'  that is equally true of this performance. It is smooth, seamless, delicate, confident, poised, and simply lovely. There are more sophisticated harmony lines than in the original, presumably as a result of the classical training. All in all, a perfect and fitting tribute to the local lads who done good.

`Anthem' is one of my favourites, but I thought it had been spoiled when a significant number of orchestra members left the stage after `Granada'. Matthew was as surprised as the rest of us, I am sure, but mercifully was in a position to start again  a beginning such as that deserves unimpeded delivery. LOVE the emotions of those lyrics  patriotism at its purist against the backdrop of a glorious melody, made even more perfect by the arrangement for harmonies.

Orchestral excellence came again in `A love so beautiful'. I find it odd that, in the same way I was never especially fond of `Remember me' until Baltimore, this song also had ceased to make an impact on me&until this night, when the execution was stunning from all quarters.

`Caledonia' will always remain one of my all-time favourite pieces; I was delighted that the tambourine part (believe it or not, some people DO notice these things) followed exactly the recorded version. Sad, I know, that I notice, but that icing on the cake has always seemed very important for this song. Matthew forewent his usual expansive arm gesture during his solo verse, and pointed towards Daryl and James while sing `found others on the way'. Nice touch.

And then the other highlight. Matthew told everyone how the group had been introduced to the composer of a number of songs, all of them wondering why they had seen him. Only their way back to the recording studio with Mike Moran who was producing the album they were recording at the time did they come to realize that the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens was the composer. I have heard mention on this list of `Silent sunlight', but had never heard the song sung. For those who have not yet heard it, brace yourselves. On a parallel, though not as obscure, as the fantastic lyrics drawn together by Jimmy MacCarthy, these have their own subtle imagery which makes me wonder how one individual can put words together to so beautifully describe the everyday or the abstract with such intensity of observation. This is truly a special talent. The melody line is not an obvious one, and the arrangement for the vocal chorus in the CTs' version shows yet again how inventive and empathetic harmonies can be in support of a graceful melody, even when no words are being spoken. I suspect that this tune is destined to be another show-stopper as it receives wider exposure. As with `If I fell', not to record each of these songs would be almost a criminal act. I hope someone out there with the necessary clout is reading and inwardly digesting this!

`Danny Boy' was delivered without the benefit of microphones, and showed yet again how perfectly voices can be made to meld into one. The effect was breathtaking, and earned a huge and vocal response from the entire audience.

Matthew mentioned in closing remarks that the last time they played that hall, they were the support act for Dionne Warwick (in fact that tour was my first exposure to them)  those days are doubtless far behind them now. And not least in Liverpool, former European City of Culture and still one of the friendliest places you can ever hope to visit.

One more special mention. After the usual fun and laughter during Nessun Dorma (in which the fine folks of Liverpool obeyed instructions and sang their first chorus with subtlety and control (though not the soprano `plant' of course)), there was (certainly for me) a special treat. The audience had long before this point taken the group and the orchestra to their hearts, and so demanded and were privileged to receive a second encore, this time `In the gloaming'. Without a shadow of a doubt the song which demonstrates for all to hear why The Celtic Tenors are so revered. And a song so tender in its consideration and dedication, it can still move me to tears.

Daryl's delightful mum and dad were there. And my stepmother and her neighbour - did they like the show? They were both BLOWN AWAY! Completely. I was able to rest my case.


Song list

- Ireland's Call
- Spanish Lady
- You Raise Me Up
-
Fionnghuala
- The Fields of Athenry
- Finnegan's Wake
- Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go
- Nella Fantasia
- The Holy City
- Hard Times
-
Four Strong Winds
- If I Fell
- Remember Me

INTERVAL

- Granada
- Anthem
- So Strong
- A Love So Beautiful
- You Ain't Goin' Nowhere
- Caledonia
- Silent Sunlight
- I'll Tell Me Ma
- Danny Boy
- The Town I Loved So Well
-
Whiskey In The Jar
- Time To Say Goodbye

ENCORES:
- Nessun Dorma
- In The Gloaming