‘Sea Wrack’ is a fine celebration of Irish art-song in Belfast

United KingdomUnited Kingdom ‘Sea Wrack’:  Cameron Menzies (Director), Sara O’Neill (Designer), Susie Gibbons (soprano), Jenny Bourke (mezzo-soprano), Michael Bell (tenor), Seamus Brady (baritone), Frasier Hickland (piano). St Joseph’s Sailortown, Belfast, 19.2.2023. (RB)

Hamilton Harty, arr. Bryan Evans and Tristan Russcher – ‘Sea Wrack’
Hamilton Harty – ‘Lovely Jimmie’; ‘To the Gods of Harbour and Headland’
John McCormack/Thomas Moore – ‘She is Far from the Land’
William Vincent Wallace – ‘Sainted Mother, Guide his Footsteps’
Charles Wood – ‘At the Hour of Night’
Herbert Hughes – ‘A Young Maid Stood in her Father’s Garden’
Trad. arr. Neil Martin – ‘Méilte Cheann Dubhrann’
Trad. arr. Matthew Owens – ‘Carrickfergus’
Peter Wilson arr. Matthew Reeve – ‘A River Runs Beneath Us’
Berlioz – ‘Elegy’
Neil Hannon arr. Paul Campbell – ‘Sunrise’

This concert was the third of six productions making up Northern Ireland Opera’s Salon Series featuring staged performances in buildings across Northern Ireland.  The venue was St Joseph’s, Sailortown in Belfast, which was formerly a church and is in the process of being transformed into a community and arts hub. The concert was a celebration of the Irish art song, and the strap line was the title of the first song on the programme by Hamilton Harty.

Cameron Menzies and Sara O’Neill festooned draped sails around the church in keeping with the nautical theme. The performers had clearly been well choreographed and moved freely around the venue as they performed their songs. Michael Bell walked up to the Church pulpit to deliver the penultimate highly dramatic aria by Berlioz. My one major gripe with the venue was that it was uncomfortably cold, so it might be worth investing in some heaters for future performances.

The first two songs in the programme were by the celebrated Irish composer, Hamilton Harty. All four singers performed in ‘Sea Wrack’ which praises the plants which adorn our beaches and produce the seaside smell. All four singers brought a richness of tone to the song, and I loved the voluptuous harmonies they created. Old churches can sometimes have a tricky acoustic which is difficult to negotiate and occasionally some of the diction was lost when all four were singing. Frasier Hickland did a magnificent job creating the surges and swell of the sea on the piano. Jenny Bourke gave an affecting and heartfelt performance of Harty’s arrangement of the Irish folk song, ‘Lovely Jimmie’. Seamus Brady brought an effortless lyricism and excellent diction to ‘She is Far from the Land’ in an arrangement by John McCormack and Thomas Moore. Susie Gibbons and Jenny Bourke joined forces for ‘Sainted Mother, Guide his Footsteps’. Both singers showed their operatic credentials with this duet, and I loved the way their voiced merged together to create extended mellifluous lines.

Charles Wood’s ‘At the Hour of Night’ conveys the longing conjured up when one remembers past passion. Michael Bell sang with great beauty of tone and excellent diction and the legato lines were extended beautifully. Jenny Bourke and Seamus Brady brought a sense of melancholy and consolation to the traditional Irish song ‘Méilte Cheann Dubhrann’. There was something particularly poignant about hearing this song performed in Gaelic. Jenny Bourke took centre stage again to give the premiere performance of Michael Owens’s arrangement of ‘Carrickfergus’. She gave a luminous performance injecting feelings of sadness and reflections of lost love.

Susie Gibbons brought vocal power and authority to Hamilton Harty’s ‘To the gods of Harbour and Headland’ successfully capturing the surging, bracing quality of the song. Frasier Hickland handled the intricate piano part with flair and dexterity. Berlioz’s ‘Elegie’ is a setting of Irish writer Thomas Moore’s account of Robert Emmet’s famous speech from the gallows. The latter was an eighteenth-century rebel leader who hoped to unshackle Ireland from British rule. Michael Bell gave a stirring, highly dramatic account, bringing the historical events vividly to life. All four singers combined for the final song on the programme, ‘Sunrise’ by Neil Hannon, in an arrangement by Paul Campbell. With its call to put differences aside, this was an uplifting way to end the recital.

All five of these young performers were extremely impressive in this celebration of the Irish art song.

Robert Beattie

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