Pursued by a Bear »

  • Books of the year

    November 29, 2008 @ 12:48 pm | by Fiona McCann

    Colm Tóibín tips Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, while Harry Clifton was impressed by the “magical” Life on Earth by Derek Mahon. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Jim White’s Manchester United and biographies of Thomas Moore, Daniel O’Connell and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are all in there in this year’s selection of books of the year by sundry poets and politicians. So step up and be counted alongside John Gormley, John Connolly, Claire Kilroy and the like, and tell us what the best books published over the course of 2008 were for you. . .

  • Christmas comes to the Áras

    November 27, 2008 @ 11:31 am | by Fiona McCann

    Out running this morning in the Phoenix Park and I noticed a large truck parked at the gates to the Áras, waiting, presumably for security approval for the enormous Christmas tree on the back. That’s right, Christmas is coming to the Áras, and it’s big, green, bare and ripe for decorating. Or trimming, as the Americans say (and a Happy Thanksgiving to y’all) . Which made me think of Christmas trees in books, and my first encounter with the use of the verb ‘to trim’ for trees, when Holden Caulfield promised Sally he’d come over and help her trim her Christmas tree in a drunken phone call at the end of Catcher in the Rye. That the the book ends with the Christmas tree still bare has a poignancy to it that makes it all the more memorable. Salinger wasn’t alone in imbuing this festive symbol with layers of meaning. Robert Frost’s Christmas Trees is also worth seeking out, not just for its beautiful opening lines, but to see how the nature of the trees is changed as they become redefined as Christmas.

    “My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
    Where houses all are churches and have spires.
    I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.”

    Any other literary Christmas tree references spring to mind? And what with the tree up in O’Connell street and one on its way to the President’s house, is it time to get the tree in already?

  • Cork, UNESCO city of visual folk media arts

    November 25, 2008 @ 12:30 pm | by Fiona McCann

    UNESCO has designated Iowa City as its third City of Literature. You know, along with Edinburgh and Melbourne. Melbourne? Fabulous city and all, but of literature? So here’s how it works. UNESCO has a project called the Creative Cities Network. As far as the website goes, it “connects cities who want to share experiences, ideas and best practices aiming at cultural, social and economic development.” (more…)

  • What am I at?

    November 24, 2008 @ 3:25 pm | by Fiona McCann

    Reading:  Self Portrait in the Dark – Colette Bryce , Gilead – Marilynne Robinson, The Rebels - Sandor Marai.

    Looking at: A hot-off-the-printing-press copy of Patrick Scott, the new Liberties Press publication about the octogenarian artist (two words I don’t often get to use together, alas).

    Listening to: Fleet Foxes (like everyone else, really). Everyone else’s ringtones. Grrr.

  • Who should chair the Arts Council?

    November 21, 2008 @ 10:52 am | by Fiona McCann

    Today’s editorial (read it here) points to the lengthy delay in appointing a new chair for the Arts Council to replace Olive Braiden, former director of the Rape Crisis Centre, who held the post for five years. “The Minister has had plenty of time to consider the vacancies and seek replacements.” Any suggestions to assist him in making this decision? Any takers?

  • Reviews: Peter Planyavsky (organ) – St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

    @ 9:22 am | by Fiona McCann

    This year’s biennial George Hewson Memorial Recital marked a long-awaited return to Ireland by Peter Planyavsky, professor of organ and improvisation at Vienna’s University for Music and Drama. The Viennese thread running through his programme led to crannies of the repertoire that even the more intrepid of organ aficionados might not previously have explored. (more…)

  • Reviews: Lay Me Down Softly – Peacock Theatre, Dublin

    @ 9:22 am | by Fiona McCann

    In the way of most boxing stories, Billy Roche’s new play features strutting contenders, washed-up coaches and injured kids with something to prove. Set in the early 1960s, but located less specifically “somewhere in Ireland”, it retains Roche’s warm, gently forlorn depictions of small-town lovers, dreamers and losers, but loosens his usually rooted sense of place and sets the characters adrift as members of a travelling roadshow. (more…)

  • Peter Mathiessen wins National Book Award

    November 20, 2008 @ 7:41 am | by Fiona McCann

    Eighty-one-year-old author and environmental activist Peter Mathiessen has won the National Book Award for fiction for Shadow Country, a one-volume revision of a trilogy of novels that caused a little blogosphere controversy when it was first shortlisted. The argument was whether three novels revised as one could be considered a new book, but the judges stood firm, particularly given that Shadow Country is also 400 pages shorter than the combined novels and does contain new writing. Mathiessen, one of the founders of the Paris Review and a practising Zen monk, is also known for his non-fiction and travel writing. Shadow Country is an 890 page reworking of his own trilogy on the historical figure Edgar J. Watson.

    The other winners, announced at a ceremony in New York last night, were Annette Gordon-Reed in nonfiction, for The Hemingses of Monticello; Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire in poetry; and Judy Blundell in young people’s literature, for What I Saw and How I Lied.

  • Reviews: Iolanthe – NCH, Dublin

    November 19, 2008 @ 10:52 am | by Fiona McCann

    In Dublin, and perhaps elsewhere, nobody produces the Gilbert and Sullivan canon as splendidly as the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society. A sweeping endorsement, of course, but the evidence is to hand in the version of Iolanthe now gracing the NCH stage. It is altogether delicious. (more…)

  • Reviews: Ensemble Scratch the Surface – Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

    @ 10:52 am | by Fiona McCann

    Scratch the Surface is a contemporary music ensemble founded in 2006. The programming for its recent Music Network tour was based on the premise that the old boundaries which once designated sounds as either musical or non-musical no longer exist. (more…)

  • Reviews: Tony Christie – Vicar Street, Dublin

    November 18, 2008 @ 11:38 am | by Fiona McCann

    He croons more credibly than most, his phrasing is impeccable and his occasional dance routines impinge minimally on his big band sound. Tony Christie is engaged in the kind of reincarnation that invigorated the flagging careers of everyone from Joe Dolan to Rod Stewart and Tom Jones. (more…)

  • Reviews: IBO/Huggett – St Ann’s Church, Dublin

    @ 11:37 am | by Fiona McCann

    Taking an evening out from its annual festival at Ardee, the Irish Baroque Orchestra came to Dublin with a selection from its two festival concerts. Its programme, Baroque A-Z, yielded a musical lexicon encompassing composers from Albinoni to Zelenka, with Handel, Mondonville, Purcell and Vivaldi included along the way. (more…)

  • Reviews: Cooney, RTÉ NSO/ Altschuler – NCH, Dublin

    @ 11:37 am | by Fiona McCann

    Smetana – Vltava. Dvorák – Violin Concerto. Tchaikovsky – Symphony No 6.

    A packed house for this concert by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra attested to the enduring appeal of a mainstream programme. On offer were a tone-poem, a concerto and a symphony, all dating from the last three decades of the 19th century. (more…)

  • Reviews: Cashell, Johnston, OSC/Daniel – NCH, Dublin

    @ 11:36 am | by Fiona McCann

    Mendelssohn – Hebrides Overture.

    Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 2.

    John Tavener – The Protecting Veil.

    Sophie Cashell, the young Irish pianist who won last year’s BBC2 Classical Star contest, joined the Orchestra of St Cecilia at the National Concert Hall for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in B flat (the second to be published, but the first to be written). She played with youthful brio and seemed particularly at home in the effervescence of the finale. (more…)

  • Reviews: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

    @ 11:35 am | by Fiona McCann

    Benjamin Britten wrote his Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Aldeburgh Festival of 1960. It was presented in the town’s Jubilee Hall, then newly rebuilt and extended. The hall’s capacity was – and still is – very small, accommodating an audience of just over 300. Britten took this into account by limiting the demands of staging and keeping the size of the orchestra to just 30. (more…)

  • Presidential tastes

    November 17, 2008 @ 6:23 pm | by Fiona McCann

    According to his official facebook page, Barack Obama is a fan of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Steve Wonder, Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites and The Fugees.  His favourite movies are Casablanca, the first two Godfathers, Lawrence of Arabia and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, while Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick,  Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Bible and Lincoln’s Collected Writings are listed as his favourite books. So what, if anything, does all of this tell us about the US president-elect?

  • Reviews: Ó Lionáird, Crash Ensemble – Imma, Dublin

    @ 10:47 am | by Fiona McCann

    Gavin Bryars — Anáil Dé.

    Sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird was the supporting act at the first appearance of the Gavin Bryars Ensemble in Ireland in 2004. That encounter sowed the seeds of Bryars’s new Anáil Dé (The Breath of God), settings of Irish spiritual texts for voice and an ensemble made up of two violas, cello, electric guitar and double bass. The new work was premiered at Imma on Friday by Ó Lionáird with members of the Crash Ensemble and the composer himself on double bass. (more…)

  • Reviews: TV on the Radio – Tripod, Dublin

    @ 10:46 am | by Fiona McCann

    They may have chosen to take the “difficult second album” phenomenon literally with 2006′s occasionally brilliant but largely frustrating Return to Cookie Mountain, but this year Brooklyn’s blisteringly experimental outfit TV on the Radio finally delivered on their unbearable promise with Dear Science, the significantly less-difficult third album, which seduces as much as it challenges.

    Headlining Heineken Green Synergy at a jam-packed Tripod, the art rockers have lost some of their thorns, but none of their edge.

    A song is still as likely to borrow from jazz as punk, the beat equally prone to swing or stutter, while instrumentalist David Sitek will reliably attach wind chimes to his guitar or attack a wet snare drum with what appear to be over-sized cinnamon sticks. No matter how layered the music, there’s always room for another idea. The difference now, though, is the mellow maturity that pulls off those combinations without agitation.

    Tunde Adepimbe’s lyrics retain a trace of the student radical, obliquely howling down capitalism and global warfare, but his voice has softened from shrieks and stabs into what you might call actual singing. Skittering across the stage as though moved by the vibrations alone, he bats the air during the elegant chaos of Young Liars , part preacher, part demonic possession.

    A judicious set even finds older songs subtly transformed. The Wrong Way , once a menacing concoction of jazz squawks and industrial throbs, is here accessible and declamatory, like a deconsecrated gospel hymn.

    Of the new material, Golden Age arrives with the unabashed urgency of disco, Shout Me Out struts with soulful purpose and Dancing Choose simply lets loose. It’s an ebullient display, but mercifully they can still be a little gauche. Banter is minimal, the surging Wolf Like Me is thrown out way too early, and in between the ferocious growl of DLZ , or sweet reverb of Love Dog , they somehow neglect to play Halfway Home – easily one of the best tunes of 2008. That’s TV on the Radio all over though; they are no longer a hard band to love, but they won’t make it too easy. – Peter Crawley

  • Reviews: Opera Ireland’s Madama Butterlfy – Gaiety Dublin

    @ 10:45 am | by Fiona McCann

    Opera Ireland’s artistic director Dieter Kaegi has departed from his company’s routine for the new Madama Butterfly which opened at the Gaiety Theatre on Saturday.

    Under Kaegi, Opera Ireland has shown a penchant for taking unusual slants on the best-known works in the repertoire.

    But this time around he has imported a production from the Teatro del Giglio in Lucca in which director Eike Gramss and designers Christoph Wagenknecht (sets) and Catherine Voeffray (costumes) give us a traditional Japanese house, the kind of dress that Puccini would have recognised in the opera, and a no-nonsense presentation that doesn’t fiddle with the work itself.

    The opening-night audience loved it, and many of those present rose to their feet in appreciation.

    Puccini is a composer who knew how to tug the heartstrings, and this new Butterfly did nothing to impede him. It was an unusually even evening, not just in terms of casting, but also in the way the moments of what you might call big sing were integrated into the whole.

    The fact that the standout arias did not stand out as they often do was by no means to the work’s disadvantage.

    Quite the contrary, in fact.

    Korean soprano Yunah Lee’s moments of girlish petulance as Cio-Cio San, and her extended inability to read the reality of her situation were all the more plausible for not being overshadowed.

    The sharpness of Belgian baritone Marcel Vanaud had a businesslike efficiency, neither sympathetic nor insensitive, and US tenor Keith Olsen’s Pinkerton was, well, as selfish as the role demands.

    Chinese contralto Qiu Ling Zhang brought an unusual richness of timbre to the always compassionate presence of Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki.

    Italian conductor Bruno Dal Bon encouraged colour and passion in the playing of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, and at the same time secured mostly apt balances between stage and pit. In short, this is just the kind of production to win new friends for Opera Ireland. – MICHAEL DERVAN

  • Doris Lessing and, er, cervical cancer vaccines

    November 14, 2008 @ 4:06 pm | by Fiona McCann

    There’s an interesting internet project  as blogged about by Graeme Allister here which involves an internet-based rereading of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. For more on this, go to thegoldennotebook.org. Which brings me rather neatly to the Minister for Health’s decision to suspend the cervical cancer vaccination programme. Those who disagree with the Minister’s decision are invited to meet at the Spire in O’Connell street tomorrow at 2 p.m. for a rally. And yes, there is a connection, but you can work it out for yourselves.

  • Interview with Sally Nicholls, author of Ways to Live Forever

    @ 3:48 pm | by Fiona McCann

    1. My name is Sam. 2. I am eleven years old. 3. I collect stories and fantastic facts. 4. I have leukaemia. 5. By the time you read this, I will probably be dead.

    This is the first of Sam McQueen’s series of lists, compiled to help him grapple with the questions the grown-ups in his life won’t answer, such as why God makes kids ill, and why people have to die. Not the kind of questions always associated with children, perhaps, but they were the inspiration for Sally Nicholls’s astounding new children’s book, Ways to Live Forever , which follows Sam’s “scientific” attempts to make sense of his own mortality.

    “I had a friend whose mum died, and I remember being amazed that she’d just sort of vanished off the edge of the world, and I started thinking: ‘Well, where’s she gone?’” explains Nicholls with disarming frankness. “We live in this very bright and vivid world, and we just pop out of nowhere, and then we just pop into nowhere again, and nobody knows what’s happening.”

    It’s a dark conversational topic for breakfast, particularly on the morning after a ceremony in the Irish Writers’ Centre at which Nicholls was declared the overall winner of the Glen Dimplex New Writers Awards. Yet this north Yorkshire-born writer is matter-of-fact about the kinds of things more often spoken of in hushed tones or in adult codes over the heads of those who make up her readership.

    “I wanted to write a book that asked these questions,” she says. “I’m not a religious guru. I didn’t want to answer the questions, but I wanted to say they’re worth thinking about.”

    Though aged only 25, Nicholls, while sweetly diffident when her Glen Dimplex win was announced, reveals a dogged confidence when it comes to her work. In the course of her research for the book, she came up against disapproval about her subject matter and her character’s persistent questioning, but Nicholls, whose soft-spoken shyness is underpinned by a steely purpose, would not be dissuaded.

    “I thought, well, I’m the only person who knows Sam, my character, and I’m the only person who knows how he would react and how his family would react in that situation,” she says. “So as long I get his character right, if I say he’s going to ask questions, he’s going to ask questions.”

    The result is Sam McQueen, a heartbreakingly convincing 11-year-old eager to understand his own impending death.

    “The emotional stuff is not something I can get advice on. That’s something I know,” says Nicholls – and her instincts have clearly paid off. Not only has Ways to Live Forever been hoovering up awards – it also won this year’s Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize – but Nicholls has received countless e-mails from parents of ill children who have commended her treatment of the subject.

    “It’s a big relief,” she admits. “It’s actually something that has such a big emotional impact on real people. I just wanted to make sure that this was right.”

    What has clearly helped is Nicholls’s evident understanding of children, and the lack of condescension she brings to her readers. “I write for me, aged 10,” she says. She was 22 when she began writing Ways to Live Forever and feels the proximity of her own childhood helped her find her voice.

    It’s a childhood she describes as happy and secure, despite her father’s sudden death when she was just two years old. Although she is quick to point out that she did not grow up in a “house of mourning”, she is aware that his death had an impact on how she viewed the world as a child. “I think it taught me that powerfully unexpected things just can happen to ordinary people,” she says.

    Sam, his parents and his delightfully stroppy little sister, Ella, are just such ordinary people.

    “They’re not extraordinary characters,” says Nicholls emphatically. “They’re living quite a small life, but at the same time they have this huge emotional story.”

    In telling this story, Nicholls doesn’t shy away from the kind of responsibilities that come with writing for a young audience, and is aware of the power stories can have over children.

    “You tell an adult that we’ve got global warming and the world’s going to melt, and they’re like, ‘Well, I’ve lived here for 40 years and the polar ice caps haven’t melted yet’ or they think, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it so I’m going to carry on living my life as I am’. They’re very good at setting issues in the context of this huge amount of lived experience,” Nicholls says. “But you tell a child that the ice caps are going to melt, and they either have nightmares or they ask if they should buy a boat because they’ll need a ride to school. Every piece of information you give them is much bigger in their mental landscape.”

    Yet Nicholls makes no attempt to preach any didactic or religious message, offering instead what she sees as a variety of explanations and examinations of death and mortality, and allowing her readers to draw their own conclusions.

    “I wanted to give children a range of different stories, and to say to them: ‘Look, here are the things that some very intelligent people have thought might happen to you after you die.’ And then give them the space to make up their own minds,” she says.

    Given her own considered, respectful approach to her readership, it is little wonder that she rails against celebrities who choose to write children’s books for the wrong reasons.

    “Maybe I’m doing a disservice to celebrities, but you do feel that some of them are thinking: ‘Oh, I can’t write an adult book, that’s too hard. I’ll write a children’s book! That’s easy.’ ”

    It’s a misapprehension that clearly irks her. “Actually, that’s not the case. A children’s book is as hard, or harder, to write than an adult book.”

    Nicholls makes it look easy, however, having already completed a second book, Season of Secrets , since the publication of Ways to Live Forever , with a third also on the way. Though thoughtful and serious for much of our interview over porridge and tea, a childish glee emerges when the subject of her writing career comes up, offering a glimpse of that 10-year-old self for whom she writes.

    “When you’re 10, you think: ‘I’m going to be an astronaut when I grow up.’ And when you get to 25, you realise that actually to be an astronaut isn’t open to you any more. I just feel so grateful that when I was 10 I wanted to be writer. That was my ‘being an astronaut’, and I get to do it, and I get to do it all day, and I get to write stories, and people like them, and I just find that really, really amazing,” she says.

    She takes a breath and adds, with the kind of easy positivity evinced so endearingly in Sam McQueen: “I’d be quite happy if I got to be a writer for the rest of my life, really.”

  • Reviews: Lloyd Webber, Chowhan – NCH, Dublin

    @ 3:46 pm | by Fiona McCann

    Debussy – Sonata in D minor. Britten – Sonata in C.William Lloyd Webber – In the Half Light. Nocturne.

    Brahms – Sonata in E minor, Op 38.

    This recital by English cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, presented at the National Concert Hall by the Music Network, was a frustrating experience.

    Lloyd Webber plays as if the performer is always altogether more important in the scheme of things than the composer. It’s a high-risk proposition that can be extremely effective when it comes off. Sadly, this time it didn’t.

    Lloyd Webber’s approach to the three major sonatas he offered was patchy at best, and he made the music his own in ways that seemed to take it away from the composers.

    The rashness of his approach to the sonata by Debussy resulted in a severe loss of rhythmic stability. The sonatas by Britten and Brahms sounded over-stressed and effortful, with little sense of a solidly co-ordinated partnership with pianist Pam Chowhan, whose intentions generally seemed to communicate themselves more clearly than Lloyd Webber’s.

    The interplay at the opening of the Britten was one of a number of moments which suggested what might have been. It was delightful in its caressing freedom and every note seemed perfectly placed.

    There were other passages, too, where sheer gorgeousness of tone won the day. But these were few and far between in an evening where the simple nostalgic romanticism of two short pieces by the cellist’s father, William Lloyd Webber, was altogether better served than the major fare that made up the bulk of the programme. MICHAEL DERVAN

  • Reviews: The Dresser – Everyman Palace, Cork

    @ 3:45 pm | by Fiona McCann

    There are two enormous and intertwined conflicts in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser . The second World War is the almost overwhelming background to the battle being waged within and about Sir, an ageing actor- manager discovering that, while the show must go on, he doesn’t understand any longer why he has to be the one to keep it going. Or so he says, and perhaps so he believes.Máirin Prendergast’s direction for Skylight Productions strongly establishes the play’s context, like a globe in which the two chief characters, Sir, and his dresser, Norman, are captured in a blizzard of air raids.

    They are preparing for a performance of King Lear by Sir’s tired and understaffed company on a provincial tour, with England itself storm-beaten, anguished, frightened and confused. This is exactly how Sir feels, and it is from a state of explosive despair that Norman must rescue him, making sure he is costumed for the right play and reminding him, once again, of his opening phrases.

    The fact that these two leading roles have all the best lines doesn’t diminish the quality of the playing from the rest of a very competent cast, not least Martina Carroll as Her Ladyship (these are spurious titles, achieved through the nobility of make-believe). But the fact that these two parts interlock as the fulcrum of the play, carrying its defiant message of Lear-like constancy and bewilderment, brings them, and all about them, into the brightest spotlight.

    Both Conor Dwane as Norman and Alf McCarthy as Sir sink their teeth into Harwood’s writing. This is more subtle than perhaps either man has time to convey, and Dwane especially is hampered by an accent which he sustains gallantly even when the vocal pitch, set at crescendo, makes it impenetrable. As Sir, McCarthy uses a fuller tonal range, so that his swoops from physical and mental agony to the soaring elation of performance are entirely plausible.

    Although he has to struggle with a costume which, while consistent with the period, makes him look like a demented Father Christmas, both he and Dwane convey the equivocal nature of their relationship and the tension of a dressing room besieged by uncertainty and terror.

    With such a terrific writer as Harwood, there are scenes within scenes and meanings beyond the obvious. While these are all succinctly realised by a clear- speaking and disciplined cast, a little more attention to production details would have brought this credo to the transformational power of the theatre close to perfection.  MARY LELAND

  • Reviews: Leonard, Johnston, OSC/Daniel – NCH, Dublin

    November 13, 2008 @ 10:22 am | by Fiona McCann

    Bach – Concerto for Oboe and Violin.

    Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto.

    Elgar – Serenade for strings; Cello Concerto.

    The Orchestra of St Cecilia strayed well outside the norms of orchestral programme planning for the second of its November concerts at the National Concert Hall.

    With three concertos on offer rather than the more conventional one, this was an evening that managed to begin and end with concertos and offered just a single non-concertante work, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, as a makeweight at the beginning of the second half.

    Violinist Catherine Leonard featured in both works in the first half, partnered by Nicholas Daniel (who was also the evening’s conductor) in a reconstruction of a Concerto for Oboe and Violin by Bach, and having the limelight to herself in Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor.

    Her playing in both works was light and nimble, although the lightness was not always to the music’s advantage.

    There was a strange lack of definition in the Bach, as if the overall sound picture was slightly out of focus, an effect that was fully dismissed only when Nicholas Daniel engaged in some moments of full-on expression.

    Leonard’s playing took some time to settle down in the Mendelssohn, most of the first movement in fact.

    It wasn’t really until after the cadenza that her mercurial musicality seemed to find its stride.

    Daniel’s lean and sharply accented handling of the orchestra may have deprived the music of some of its warmth, but it also had an adaptability which seemed to give Leonard free rein in her often impetuous and sometimes even skittish approach to the work.

    Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and Cello Concerto are pieces often milked for more than they can actually yield. This performance avoided that pitfall.

    Admittedly, there was a certain expressive anaemia in the Serenade, and Guy Johnston’s reserve in the concerto may not have satisfied listeners who like cellists to take a heart-on-sleeve approach to this piece.

    Yet his playing lacked for nothing in nobility, and he brought to the concerto a sense of sometimes profound resignation which more than compensated for those moments where the pallor seemed too consistent.

    The audience was well-attuned to his message, and gave his performance the warmest response of the evening. MICHAEL DERVAN

  • Reviews: Cork City Ballet – Cork Opera House

    @ 10:21 am | by Fiona McCann

    Expertise is a good partner but no substitute for sophistication, and in The Sleeping Beauty Suite , Cork City Ballet director Alan Foley makes no mistake about the distinction.

    The dancers are experts, and in some cases more than that. But the vision, the approach and the style is utterly sophisticated.

    This is particularly the case in the first half of this programme, which consists of four divertissements, two of them contemporary works set to modern music.

    The muscular lyricism of Gira Con Me (music by Josh Groban, choreography by Alan Foley), expressed by Yuri Demakov, Leigh Alderton and Charles Washington, is carried into a different rhythmic context in Willing and Able (music by Prince, choreography by Foley again, Patricia Crosbie, and Sher Roberts), with the dancers led by Monica Loughman and Robert Gabdullin in a well-conceived performance involving the entire company, their austere costuming exploding into jewel-bright fragments for the finale.

    With a quarter of contrasts completed by the lovely Pas d’esclaf from Le Corsaire (the Petipa version with music by Delibes and Minkus), danced by Chikka Temma and Akzhol Mussakanov, and La Vivandière (Saint-Léon, with music by Pugni), danced by Asami Taki and Leigh Alderton, it becomes clear, as so often with Foley, that contemporary and classical dance can enrich one another in terms both of technique and interpretation.

    And of excitement too, for it is obvious again that these dancers must love Foley, who lets them revel in what they do best and puts them in gorgeous costumes as well.

    Meanwhile, Lisa Zagone’s setting of translucent drapes is constantly transformed by Paul Denby’s lighting design.

    With skill, brio and sheer enjoyment beaming from the stage (this time less successfully converted to a palace ballroom), it is no surprise that the dances from Aurora’s wedding scene in The Sleeping Beauty follow in sequences relying on the miracles of timing which ballet makes commonplace.

    Swept along by Tchaikovsky’s music, with Ekaterina Bortyakova as Princess Aurora, Monica Loughman and Robert Gabdullin as the Bluebirds and Chika Temma as the Lilac Fairy, and often with the entire stage a rainbow froth of glitter and tulle, it is easy to admire the elan of individual virtuosity and ensemble composure.

    Perhaps this is what prompts the desire for more context: after all, the wedding party is only the end of the story as told by Marius Petipa, although it’s a terrific party. MARY LELAND

  • Reviews: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui – Abbey Theatre, Dublin

    @ 10:20 am | by Fiona McCann

    There is an astonishing moment in the Abbey’s striking new production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui that halts Bertolt Brecht’s splenetic parody in its tracks, a moment so chilling that icicles form in the air.

    Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the mercurial Ui, a Chicago gangster and despot in the making, is taking ridiculous lessons from an image consultant – Des Cave’s washed-up actor – and playing with his mannerisms like a child with a loaded gun.

    Suddenly he hits on a particular gesture, a salute so familiar, so easy to lampoon, that it shouldn’t shock us. But it does.

    His arm held aloft with unnerving intensity, it slices through the innumerable references in Vaughan-Lawlor’s extraordinary performance – the crumpled posture of Richard III, the Runyonesque “Noo Yoik” accent, the hyper-animation of Charlie Chaplin – and delivers not just a stunning picture of Hitler but a lesson in the dangerous allure of spectacle.

    Jimmy Fay’s production may arrive suffused with contextual parallels, carrying echoes of the 1929 depression and political disaffection into the present day, but its depiction of Chicago gangsters muscling in on the cauliflower business places its satiric emphasis squarely on America.

    Conor Murphy’s design, a starkly impressive picture of industrial grey recesses lined with vegetable crates and meathooks, also finds room for American iconoclast Jasper Johns, whose American Flag looms over the stage, while Denis Clohessy’s thrillingly effective music extends a guest appearance to Jimi Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner , piercing though the play’s sham trial scene.

    Such criticism may seem heavy-handed, particularly when the American political narrative has just entered one of its most hopeful chapters.

    Similarly, Brecht’s allegory – written in 1941, before the true horror of the “final solution” – is stodgy with political detail, leadenly announcing its historical allusions, here delivered by George Seremba through a loudhailer.

    For all the anti-illusion and distancing dictums of Brecht’s epic theatre, Fay’s production is most absorbing for its rich and rough aesthetic.

    Presenting Ui as a 20ft judge, towering over a perversion of justice, may overstate the point, but it feeds the imagination.

    Likewise, whatever Brecht’s misgivings about the seduction of performance, it’s the cast who hold the attention like a vice.

    Ui’s clownish cavorting and paranoid twisting wouldn’t be so effective without Eamon Morrissey’s haunted stillness as the corrupted Dogsborough, or Aidan Kelly’s nerveless tough guy, Roma.

    Kate Brennan and Malcolm Adams also distinguish themselves among an excellent supporting cast.

    Ultimately, though, this is Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s show. His Ui uncurls at the play’s beginning like an awakening monster, tears through it with bravura (anyone who thinks he’s overdoing it should take a quick glance at the actual Hitler) and ends it on a pedestal surrounded by the corrupt, cowed and coerced. Brecht wrote the play to show how such creatures could be stopped.

    The charismatic demon and the appalling, enthralling momentum of the show seem to say the opposite. Resistance is useless. PETER CRAWLEY

  • French Film Festival

    November 12, 2008 @ 10:05 am | by Fiona McCann

    The Irish Film Institute’s French Film Festival kicked off last night with the Irish premiere of Faubourg 36, Christophe Barratier’s tale of a working-class community and their beloved theatre, set in Popular Front France. Likely highlights of this ten-day festival include Capitaine Achab (Captain Ahab), Philippe Ramos’ imagining of the life of the famous Moby Dick character (Wednesday, November 19th), Eleve Libre (Private Lessons), the latest from Private Property director Joachim Lafosse (Sunday, November 16th), and Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis, Danny Boon’s comedy about moving to rural Northern France, a box-office smash in its native France. (Saturday, Novemer 15th and Monday, November 17th). The newly restored version of Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes, once famously described by Andrew Sarris as “the greatest film ever made” is also a chance to see whether this fifties film about the fascinating Irish-born courtesan lives up to the hype. For more details of what’s on offer, check out the Irish Film Institute website.

  • Reviews: The Nose – Project Arts Centre

    @ 9:21 am | by Fiona McCann

    What’s missing from the Tom Swift’s new adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s mesmerically absurd short story, The Nose ? It isn’t the status-hungry civil servant Kovalyov, who is still there somewhere under Aongus Óg McAnally’s thick layer of white make-up and hair dye. Nor is it the febrile imagination of the original, in which

    Kovalyov’s nose mysteriously departs his face and is discovered first in a bread roll, then walking the streets of St Petersburg in the uniform of a State Councillor.

    No, the strange absence in Performance Corporation’s handsome but muddled production is The Nose itself, a schnoz so prominent in Gogol’s fiction that it engages in conversation, fakes its own passport and even goes on the run. Here, though, the title character is largely an invisible presence, signified by chasing lights.

    It’s a disappointing omission, partly because there is precious little in the original to omit, but mainly because if any theatre company could get a talking nose onstage, it’s the dependably adventurous Performance Corporation. Sadly, without such animation, Swift and director Jo Mangan have further difficulties in fleshing out The Nose.

    Where Swift has previously compressed Voltaire’s Candide into a wild ride of playful invention for the company, this literary adaptation seems to stretch Gogol thin. The ludic conceit is neatly embellished with some good contemporary gags (and every conceivable pun) but suffers from an unusually slack pace and an unsuitably conventional narrative structure. Major Kovalyov is now a low-status official on the make, contending with a senile father (Alan Howley) and juggling two prospective wives – the penurious but virtuous Olga (Lisa Lambe) and the rich but monstrous Katerina (a ferociously funny creation from the excellent Conan Sweeney). He needs that nose back in order to attend the Civil Servants’ Ball.

    Beyond the Cinderella riff, Mangan’s production is a cocktail of allusions.

    Dream sequences performed between the warped mirrors and tapered ladder of Ciaran Bagnall’s traverse set suggest a monochrome Wonderland, while Kevin Treacy’s ominous splinters of light seem determined to inject some Kafka into the mix. Fluctuating between prolonged comic exchanges and more effective dance sequences, the production never finds a centre. Tellingly, one bravura scene has Lisa Lambe returning as a TV news presenter, archly sending up empty media conventions, but the words are self-defeating: the story so far, she reports, is “a farce or a satire on something or other”.

    Gogol himself is similarly equivocal (“There is much that is improbable in it,” his narrator dismisses). But while the production makes acerbic swipes at property, status, corruption and power, ultimately it doesn’t seem to have sniffed out the meaning either. Settling instead for an ending of pure sentimentality, its pat resolution suggests this gleeful effort to hunt for the elusive significance of Gogol’s fable has finally lost the scent. PETER CRAWLEY

  • Reviews: Kanye West – RDS Simmonscourt, Dublin

    November 11, 2008 @ 11:23 am | by Fiona McCann

    Are hip-hop celebrities at elevated risk of clinical megalomania and delusions of grandeur? Is that cause or correlation? Rap music was born of quickness and rhyme, and its early practitioners competed fiercely with each other to stay at the cutting edge. You had to be able to say you were the best, so mainly you rapped about how it was so patently clear that you were the best. That overt megalomania still spills out of all the top acts, but the trick has become to sharpen the point: what will be nature of the claim – bombastic, sarcastic, threatening, wry?

    Kanye West has chosen a straight-up form of pure vanity, a sterling self-regard, and he has grown too powerful to be in the avant-garde of the music. But as he showed at the RDS, he has not become a static dispenser of his own celebrity. Rather, he is still working it, sweating hard, digging deep and sincerely into a song when the rhymes need force behind them, while at other times just loping or lolling, chin thrust, through a riveting spectacle, letting the highly produced music share the stage with his highly produced persona.

    The stage: ’twas a thing of beauty, by turns giant laptop, spaceship dashboard and alien terrain. It also jetted various colours of flame, swivelled, and appeared to run with water and whip with blown sand. Two huge screens flanked it, with video constantly close-up on West to allow the audience to track the psychic drama playing on his face (introspection clear by firm set of jaw).

    West trod this fantastic contraption in a sort of Buck Rogers deerskin. The show was part hokey drama about a crashed spaceship with a satnav named Jane. West, stranded and alone, rapped and sang about the various travails of superstardom and the general loneliness of being brilliant. Then, after a bit of lewd dialogue, Jane transformed into the eponym of West’s greatest hit, Gold Digger , the shooting stars themselves proclaimed him the biggest star in the universe, West saved himself, blasted off, and was raptured back for two encores. DAVID SHAFER

  • Reviews: Scharoun Ensemble – Imma, Dublin

    @ 11:22 am | by Fiona McCann

    Mozart – Horn Quintet K417.

    Weber – Clarinet Quintet.

    Schubert – Octet.

    The Association of Music Lovers (AML), which began life 41 years ago as the Limerick Music Association (LMA), is behind many of the finest chamber music concerts in Dublin. This one was no exception from the usual high quality. The performers were eight members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra whose collective title, the Scharoun Ensemble, honours Hans Scharoun, the architect of the orchestra’s celebrated Berlin concert hall.

    The ensemble has long-standing connections with the LMA/AML. Its precursor, the Berlin Philharmonic Octet, gave the LMA’s first concert in 1967, and several return visits have included the association’s memorable 40th anniversary concert in April last year.

    This performance in the Great Hall of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham included two works from the 1967 inaugural programme, Mozart’s Horn Quintet and Schubert’s Octet. The addition of Weber’s Clarinet Quintet made for an uncommonly satisfying afternoon’s listening.

    Coordination was, when necessary, managed through the delicate signalling of first violinist Wolfram Brandl. For the most part, however, the playing was as if guided by democratic instincts, each player taking his turn as primus inter pares as required.

    Thus neither the horn player, Stefan de Leval Jezierski, nor the clarinettist, Alexander Bader, availed of the extra bow merited by their superb soloistic contributions to the two quintets.

    A more fulfilling live performance of either piece would be hard to imagine, except perhaps that Jezierski’s infallible and characterful tones might have been directed a little more towards the audience.

    The keystone of the Scharoun Ensemble’s repertoire remains the Octet by Schubert, which they finally released on disc three years ago. Every moment offered something to savour, be it flexible and subtly foregrounded melody, uncommonly well-focused harmony or pristine tonal matching. And with most of the repeat marks observed, the six extensive movements ran to just over an hour of absolute pleasure. ANDREW JOHNSTONE

  • Reviews: Kitt, Medjimorec – Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

    @ 11:21 am | by Fiona McCann

    Schumann – Märchenbilder. Anthony Payne – Out of the

    Depths Comes Song. Prokofiev – Sonata Op 119.

    English composer Anthony Payne (born 1936) enjoys the mixed blessing of attaining his greatest public attention through someone else’s music. In 1998 his elaboration on Elgar’s deathbed sketches for a third symphony was a major popular success, with Payne earning a degree of exposure that would have been hard to predict on the basis of his previous work.

    Foremost among the impressive features of his Elgar completion were his mastery of large orchestral forces and his ability to sustain the continuous presence of Elgar’s voice. So it was interesting to hear Out of the Depths Comes Song , a 10-minute piece for cello and piano which is Payne writing in his own voice. It was the world premiere.

    The dedicatee – Austrian cellist Florian Kitt – explained in a brief introduction that the piece has a rather romantic, impressionist surface which belies the complex string textures the cellist must work through. The structure is in mirror form, possibly involving retrograde lines (if I understood correctly) and certainly seeing the “song”, having risen from “out of the depths”, going back to them at the end.

    Kitt, who has a special interest in contemporary music, brought to the Payne piece an element of animation and intensity that had been missing in his earlier quite bland account of Schumann’s child-inspired Märchenbilder . Also contributing to a shortage of expressivity in the Schumann was pianist Rita Medjimorec whose velvet touch was simply too universally applied.

    Velvet was perhaps also the wrong approach for the Prokofiev Sonata, which seemed to me to be missing the bite that is part of its make-up. And although the duo’s best moments were in this piece – including some nice lyrical touches – it mostly felt as though there was a much better piece trapped inside, raring to get out. MICHAEL DUNGAN

  • Ways to Live Forever

    @ 11:09 am | by Fiona McCann

    Twenty-five-year-old Sally Nichols has won the Glen Dimplex New Writers award for her book Ways to Live Forever. It’s the story of Sam McQueen, an 11-year-old fan of airships and Warhammer who is dying of leukaemia. An intelligently written, affecting book Ways to Live Forever is sincere in asking the questions that we need to keep asking as adults about death and divine justice. This is the first time a children’s book has won the overall award, with judges on the night referring to a “golden age of children’s books.” Given such wonderful work from the likes of Philip Pullman and John Boyne, it’s easy to see why. Anyone any others to add to the list? Is this really a golden age for children’s books, or do y’all hearken back to the days of Ballet Shoes, Narnia books and Susan Cooper?

    For the full list of Glen Dimplex New Writers Awards winners, click here.

  • Reviews: Goldfrapp

    November 10, 2008 @ 10:18 am | by Fiona McCann

    Over the course of four albums, Goldfrapp have nailed the seemingly impossible task of making fantastically catchy yet mysteriously complex pop music. Comparing the English duo’s live show to a football match might, at first, seem like a strange analogy.

    The band’s display in Tripod, however, had many ingredients that resembled a hard fought encounter between two teams, in this case the audience and the performer. The show had two distinct halves; the first was a subdued game of cat and mouse with each side reluctant to give anything away while the second half was far more open and entertaining.

    The reason for this unusual sate of affairs stemmed from the actions of Alison Goldfrapp. Dressed in a revealing pink silk costume with a six-piece band (minus co-member Will Gregory), all in matching white, the singer was a picture of self-assured yet detached grace.

    A couple of songs into the set, she brusquely requested that fans abstain from using flash photography. In Liverpool, a week earlier, Goldfrapp had stormed off stage due to this same request being ignored. Bristles of tension were palpable in the audience’s reaction and it created a frosty atmosphere that took time to thaw. Musically, the band never put a foot wrong. Utopia allowed Goldfrapp to show off her spectacular voice, and the spiky string arrangement of You Never Know was dazzling if not rousing.

    Little Bird provided the breakthrough that brought proceedings to life. Allowing the musicians to flex their muscles, the swirling psychedelic folk tune triggered the dancing feet of the audience.

    Following this with the electro-glam of Number 1 and candy-pop Happiness ensured everyone remained on-side. Even Goldfrapp finally appeared to be loosening out, as she tossed out compliments and lapped up the crowd’s responses.

    With the squelchy synths of Train giving way to Goldfrapp’s possessed theremin playing the show had turned from a jittery competitive fixture to a full-on friendly.

    Proving that it takes more than just great songs to make an excellent gig, and having delivered hits for a full 90 minutes, the band and fans parted in a wave of mutual adulation. BRIAN KEANE

  • Reviews: Kempf, RTÉ NSO/Valade

    @ 10:18 am | by Fiona McCann

    Henri Dutilleux — Métaboles. Ravel — Piano Concerto in G. Franck — Symphony in D minor.

    Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles , commissioned for the 40th anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra and premiered under George Szell in January 1965, has kept a very respectable presence both on disc and in the concert hall. Its return is like the arrival of an old friend who always has something new to say.

    Dutilleux, who turned 90 two years ago, is a fastidious craftsman, and the polished detail of his orchestration is always a pleasure.

    What was in his mind in writing Métaboles , he has said, was “the mysterious, fascinating world of everlasting change”.

    That change is carried through not only with a sure sense of organic development but also with a satisfying ultimate resolution.

    Pierre-André Valade’s performance with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra on Friday was sure-footed in pacing though not always as tidy in detail as one would have wished.

    Valade took a fairly direct approach to César Franck’s symphony in D minor, a work that treads a dangerously fine line between the hypnotic focus of an orator who knows how to stay focused on the essential message and the repetitive emphasis of a speaker who doesn’t know how to get meaningfully beyond the core point.

    Valade’s clear-headedness did not fully avoid an effect of going around in circles, and the music-making was hampered by a lack of dynamic variety in climaxes, which effectively created a ceiling above which the music could not rise.

    The high point of this performance was the finely taken cor anglais solo in the second movement.

    Freddy Kempf was the agreeably energised soloist in Ravel’s piano concerto in G. He relished the music’s jazzy snap and bluesy inflections, and generated a gorgeously calm raptness for the long solo that opens the slow movement. MICHAEL DERVAN

  • Reviews: Ryan Adams and The Cardinals

    @ 10:14 am | by Fiona McCann

    The wild child of rock is now in his 30s and he appears to have entered a new era of stability.

    Tonight there was little of the shambolic self-indulgence that had become a feature of a Ryan Adams gig. Instead, Adams was focused and together, delivering a blistering two-hour set. This was Adams at the peak of his powers with backing band The Cardinals acting as the perfect foil for his talents.

    Inevitably, much of the set was devoted to tracks from the impressive new album Cardinology , in which a re-invigorated Adams fuses his alt country roots with some driving rock. It blends elements from the likes of Neil Young, U2 and The Grateful Dead.

    The wunderkind must be slowing up. Cardinology is only his first album in 18 months; this from a highly prolific performer who delivered no less than three albums in 2004. In truth, Adams has probably still to deliver on the potential he showed on his breakthrough Heartbreaker album in 2000. His drug problems and other demons have often overshadowed his talent.

    But tonight, it is clear that sobriety and Ryan Adams are comfortable bedfellows.

    Fix It , the stand out track from the new album, features a searing Wilco-style guitar, while Cobwebs showcases Adams’s great vocal range. Adams also treats us to his eerie, countrified version of Oasis’ Wonderwall . After hearing the version, the Gallaghers once observed that Ryan Adams now owns the song; on stage it was a real highlight. There was no shortage of others as Adams rolled out songs from his back pages including familiar favourites like When The Stars go Blue and La Cinega just Smiled .

    There was none of the usual tantrums and grandstanding from Adams. Instead, the whole gig had a warm glow as Adams and The Cardinals settled into what they used to call a comfortable groove.

    Adams performed half a dozen songs during a long encore. His voice was at its most fragile and haunting on Stop , his song about sickness and recovery.

    The new album, which has soared into the US charts, is expected to be Adams’ last on Lost Highway records. It may be that part one of his brilliant careers is over. Apparently, he favours a change of direction – more rock and less alt country.

    There is every reason to be excited by the prospect. Ryan Adams may be cleaned up and chilled out, but he is a bona fide rock star. This gig throbbed with great vocals and great playing. Adams is back on track. SEAN FLYNN

  • Hunger

    November 7, 2008 @ 11:39 am | by Fiona McCann

    Yes, I have seen Steve McQueen’s film, but this is not a review because what I really want to write about is this: David Cox’s ignorant, vituperative rant against the film on the Guardian’s Film blog. His post is so offensive it’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll give it a lash anyway.

    “Far from being shocked at seeing the inmates roughed up a bit, I found myself wishing they’d been properly tortured, preferably savagely, imaginatively and continuously.” Er, let’s assume he’s just being provocative here, because the alternative – that he’s some kind of torture voyeur that would be happy snapping alongside the rest at Abu Ghraib – is a little hard to stomach. Because, Mr Cox, we’ve been through this. Those who perpetrate torture in the employ of the state are reviled and repudiated when their actions come to light. It’s banality-of-evil, stuff, if you want to look into it. Once you brush up on those “administrative conditions” in the North that the irritating Irish were so chafing against; the political aims of the IRA; and  — this one’s important — how not to make your clinical sadism clearly apparent in copy, you should go ahead and make that film you want to make, the torture-porn epic celebrating Britain’s role in the Troubles. Maybe you can play Captain John Bull and your character can mete out some ‘heroic’ treatment of the Irish. A fine vicious Celtic romance, to be sure.

  • Gore Vidal on election night

    November 5, 2008 @ 11:44 am | by Fiona McCann

    One of the funniest bits of a wonderful night which has me underslept and overjoyed was watching Gore Vidal being interviewed by David Dimbleby.  YouTube Preview Image

  • Feminist Open Forum

    November 3, 2008 @ 6:01 pm | by Fiona McCann

    I’ve been asked to post about the Feminist Open Forum, but given the parameters of this blog, I’m going to have to crowbar some arts into the subject. Not too difficult, actually, given the amount of themes, writers and feminist literary theory to draw from.

    But given that this is a blog and not a thesis, I’m just going to point up some of my favourite feminist writers, or writers who, when read within a feminist analysis, are part of what brought me to the Feminist Open Forum last Thursday.

     Much credit goes to Jean Rhys for Wide Sargasso Sea – a reworking of Jane Eyre from the perspective of the mad woman in the attic, this reclaims Bertha’s subjectivity in a clever shift of centre to the colonies. In other moments Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue, and even, I’ll admit it, Naomi Woolf’s The Beauty Myth, said things I needed to hear. I should point out, before y’all decry my more populist reading material, that I also put time in with Helene Cisoux, Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, as well as Alice Walker, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein. Yet it was in the poems of Anne Sexton, Dorothy Parker and Edna St Vincent Millay that I found voices that I recognised and to which I have never tired listening. So who have I missed?

  • Astral Weeks Live

    @ 1:33 pm | by Fiona McCann

    So we all know by now that Van Morrison will be performing Astral Weeks live on Friday and Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl. Which even sounds bizarre as I write it. His reasons? “In the 60′s and 70′s the record companies did not support the music, so I never got to take these songs on tour, and I certainly did not have the money to do it.” Fine, and of course Van Morrison can do with Astral Weeks and the songs thereon whatever he likes. But. The concerts are to be recorded live and released as Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl. Even the title makes me shudder.  I know I should reserve judgment and wait to see if any magic is produced on the nights involved. But I’m not. Anyone else (apart from Sean O’Hagan) unsteadied at the thought?

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