Music for all tastes

An Irishwoman’s Diary about musical innovation in Sligo


WHEN Rod Alston says he lives in a “muddy paradise”, he isn’t joking. Or maybe just a little. With two dogs, a ginger cat, goats and a collection of polytunnels, his peaceful homestead near the Leitrim-Fermanagh border would be many people’s idea of heaven.

English by birth, Alston came to Ireland with a group of like-minded peers in a flush of youthful eco-activism. It quickly became apparent that the peers were more at home in the halls of academe than the hedges of rural Ireland, and Alston has been on his own for two decades now, eking out a living — just about — selling organic vegetables and herbs.

But he didn’t just settle for growing greens. A keen harpsichordist, he was disappointed by the lack of opportunity to play with other chamber musicians in the area — so he planted, and nurtured, the Sligo Baroque Orchestra. “When I came here I thought that I could live without much music,” he says. “It turned out otherwise.”

The SBO is an inclusive group which combines amateur, professional and student musicians. In the 20 years since it was formed, classical music has blossomed in Sligo. The Con Brio series presents seven or eight top-notch professional concerts a year. The annual spring festival at Drumcliffe attracts audiences from all over Ireland; the Sligo Academy of Music takes care of the tuition of talented young players; and Music Generation Sligo brings outreach work to primary schools and elsewhere.

With his holistic outlook on life and art, however, Alston felt there was a further step to be taken. Two years ago, he and a number of co-conspirators from a variety of musical traditions started a very different concert series. Which is why I find myself in the airy brick-and-glass courtyard of the Model Arts Centre on a Sunday lunchtime, surrounded by sofas and cafe-style tables.

The audience ranges in age from toddlers, who sit happily on parental knees, through 14-year-old Charlotte Kinsella, who plays flute with the SBO, to 96-year-old Aleck Crichton, former head of the Jameson Distillery and president of the Yeats Society Council, whose family have been keen amateur chamber musicians for generations.

The programme features Nadene Fiorentini, the young Donegal pianist who has just won the NCH’s Rising Star award for 2014.

There’s trad from Waterboys fiddler Steve Wickham, with cellist Anna Houston and guitarist Felip Carbonell. Houston and Wickham join the SBO for a Heinichen concerto. Another SBO member, 14-year-old Peter Watters, plays Kabalevsky — while to acknowledge the recent death of Pete Seeger, Carbonell slips Where Have All The Flowers Gone ? into the mix.

The received wisdom in the classical music world has always been that people coming and going when they please — and having the temerity to drink cappuccinos while they’re there — mitigates against serious listening. That’s not how it works at the Model. People tap their toes to the trad, hum along with the Seeger song. Waitresses deliver sandwiches and salads.

But Fiorentini’s dreamy performance of Brahms intermezzi is different and inspires a quiet as profound as I’ve ever experienced at a formal classical concert.

Alston is determined to expand the range of music and performers even further. He’d like to add jazz and other musical styles, encouraging audience and performers to stretch their musical horizons, and helping to grow a sense of meaningful musical community as well as developing the concertgoers of the future.

So far, the funding powers-that-be have not seen fit to bestow any financial help in his endeavour. With ticket prices kept to a modest fiver and children admitted for free, it’s a miracle that Alston manages to keep the series going. But then, as an organic gardener, he knows a thing or two about persisting in the face of floods, drought and the vagaries of late-capitalist economies.

The concerts take place at 1.30 pm on the first Sunday of every month - with very occasional exceptions: check with the Model website, — and if you’re in, or even near, Sligo, be sure to drop in.

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