Lagan Behind – An Irishman’s Diary about JoAnn Falletta and Van Morrison

JoAnn Falletta:  whatever about San Francisco, she is surely a leading authority on the distance between Buffalo and Belfast, because for several years earlier this decade she was simultaneously the leader of the Ulster Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic.

JoAnn Falletta: whatever about San Francisco, she is surely a leading authority on the distance between Buffalo and Belfast, because for several years earlier this decade she was simultaneously the leader of the Ulster Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic.

 

‘It’s a long way to Buffalo,” sang Van Morrison on his great 1971 song St Dominic’s Preview. But as he added: “It’s a long way to Belfast City too”. And these statements were fully consistent with each other at the time, because he was writing from San Francisco.

The triangulation is explained, apparently, by one of Morrison’s band members, who was from the aforementioned city in upstate New York, and who use to drive home every chance, despite the distance. Van must have been a bit homesick too, although not as sick as his home town itself, then sinking into anarchy.

We’ll come back to his strangely titled song later. First, however, I must mention what brought it to mind: a different kind of musical event in Dublin this weekend, and the extraordinary woman who will conduct it.

Her name is JoAnn Falletta. And whatever about San Francisco, she is surely a leading authority on the distance between Buffalo and Belfast, because for several years earlier this decade she was simultaneously the leader of the Ulster Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic.

Women conductors remain an extreme rarity in the world, except perhaps on trains. But in her main and continuing role, as the Buffalo Phil’s musical director, Falletta has achieved an influence few men can rival. Not only has she turned a middle-ranking orchestra into one of America’s most successful (as measured by audience subscriptions), her honours also include being named “Buffalo’s most influential civic leader”.

A former guitar virtuoso from Brooklyn, Falletta has achieved all she has not by courting easy popularity in the form of a repertoire limited to classical’s greatest hits. On the contrary, she has conducted more than 100 premieres of US composers and, while in Belfast, championed the local neglected too.

But she is certainly popular, not least with the sorts of people who go to the trouble of voting in internet polls. In a 2015 one organised by the music website Bachtrack, she was crowned the “world’s favourite conductor”, beating many better-known names.

Interestingly, her Buffalo Philharmonic could finish only third in “favourite orchestra” section. And who beat it into first, after a concerted social media campaign? The RTÉ Concert Orchestra, that’s who.

Fate demanded that these poll-toppers should meet, artistically, sooner or later. So sure enough, this Saturday night at the National Concert Hall, they will, in a programme dedicated to Falletta’s first musical love, the guitar.

The “Viva España Signature Series” concert will inevitably include Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. But a plethora of other Spanish masters, plus Riimsky-Korsakov, will also feature, with Craig Ogden as soloist. Full details at nch.ie

Getting back to Van, meanwhile, Falletta unwittingly set me reading about St Dominic’s Preview, a song much analysed when it first appeared, partly because of the Troubles references, and partly because its title suggests a vision.

Morrison may have encouraged this in an interview at the time, when he was quoted as saying he had had no idea while writing it why he made a St Dominic’s Church the central image. Only weeks later did he read about a Mass for peace in Northern Ireland that was being held in a church of that name in San Francisco, hitherto unknown to him. This, he said, “totally blew me out”.

Alas for blow-outs, Morrison later backtracked – as opposed to Bachtracked on this account, suggesting the reporter had invented most of it. (I’m indebted to Morrison scholar Peter Wrench, who wrote a book called St Dominic’s Flashback, for the detective work).

So we don’t know, after all, if the original St Dominic (1170 – 1221) deserved a joint writing credit.

And we can only debate, as Morrison fans still do, such mysteries as whether the “Joyce” referred to in the song – “I’m hoping that Joyce/Won’t blow the hoist” – is fellow Irish exile James, or just a female friend. Nor for that matter do we know what, if anything, the phrase “blow the hoist” means.

Maybe Van doesn’t know either. But perhaps his fellow Belfast poet Gerald Dawe could enlighten us. I suggest this because of an almost-mystical occurrence the other day in which, even as I was reading about St Dominic’s Preview, an email arrived inviting me to the launch tonight of In Another World, Dawe’s latest book.

As the subtitle explains, the book is about “Van Morrison and Belfast”. And I won’t claim this coincidence blew me out. But I have certainly interpreted it as a sign, pointing me towards the headquarters of Poetry Ireland, on Dublin’s Parnell Square, where the launch takes place at 7pm.

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