Starting with Intent
Music Network has continued its great tradition of forging connections within the Irish music scene by bringing together three well-known traditional musicians: Dublin harper Cormac de Barra, Wexford uilleann piper Mark Redmond, and fiddler, singer and composer (and founding member of Altan) Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. There is quite a diversity of styles between these musicians: Ní Mhaonaigh is a lifelong exponent of the fiddle and song traditions of her native Donegal; de Barra is perhaps best known for his work with Moya Brennan of Clannad and with harper Anne-Marie O’Farrell; and Redmond plays regularly with orchestras, most recently performing in the National Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin earlier this month.
The concert started with intent, Ní Mhaonaigh playing the march ‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’ and de Barra accompanying with a sophisticated combination of regular accompaniment and using his harp’s soundboard as percussion. It was as if we were being promised that Ní Mhaonaigh, de Barra and Redmond were not just great musicians sharing a stage, but a group who despite never having played together before were already a coherent musical entity.
This opening set was followed by two tunes led by Redmond on tin whistle (the air ‘Molly McAlpine’ and hornpipe ‘Poll Ha’penny’), which he played with wonderful intimacy. These were then followed by the first of Ní Mhaonaigh’s compositions, the reel ‘The Red Crow’. De Barra again played a lovely accompaniment to this, intricate but exciting.
Redmond then took out a new set of C-sharp uilleann pipes for a solo set of ‘The Reason for My Sorrow’ and ‘Redmond’s Frolics’, which were followed by de Barra playing a solo ‘Miss Hamilton’, and then a Kitty Gallagher song by Ní Mhaonaigh. All of these were performed with authority and emotional depth, but it was becoming apparent that the intent of the opening set was not quite going to be followed through: the stage was now occupied by three superb but separate musicians trading tunes rather than working as a trio. The first half of the concert drew to a close with three more of Ní Mhaonaigh’s compositions, two of which – ‘Cúlshruth’ and ‘Ar Nós na Gaoithe’ – were commissioned by Music Network for this tour
The second half continued in a similar way: a combination of group and solo or duet sets, a mix of dance music and slow airs from all over the country, and with music from early and restored collections (including the recently published Forde collection from the 1840s) alongside new music. Indeed, given Ní Mhaonaigh’s, de Barra’s and Redmond’s track records of exploration in Irish traditional music, tonight’s concert was a surprisingly conservative affair, with the musical richness lying in subtle places such as how they turned musical phrases, how they combined their different performance traditions, and the unusual, local repertoires they brought to the meeting, rather than in radical experiments in harmony or instrumentation.
If I could reiterate my one hesitation, though: Perhaps it is in the nature of these Music Network collaborations that the musicians are not entirely comfortable with each other. The only times tonight’s concert seemed weak was when the performers didn’t quite catch the breath of each other’s melody or were unsure of a transition between tunes – and the most beautiful moments were generally when one musician played a tune with which he or she was intimately familiar and the other musicians either played out or took a decidedly supportive role. (In addition to the tunes mentioned above, de Barra’s solo rendition of O’Carolan’s ‘Mr O’Connor’ was a highlight, played as it was with both sumptuous melodiousness and attention to detail of articulation.) But first it should be stressed just how fine these moments were: they alone would have made it a fine concert. And second, the trio grew more confident even over the course of the evening: ‘Molly Saint George’, played by Redmond and de Barra after the interval, was expansive and luxurious, and stopped me in my tracks. Moments such as these were wondrous, and they leave me with a great excitement to see if the collaboration will extend beyond this short tour – but tonight, it was promised rather than delivered.
Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Cormac De Barra and Mark Redmond’s Music Network tour continues tomorrow (21st Sept.) at the Station House Theatre, Clifden, then Áras Inis Gluaire, Bellmullet (22nd), Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge (1st Oct) and Triskel Arts Centre, Cork (2nd Oct.). For booking, visit www.musicnetwork.ie.
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Published on 20 September 2022
James Camien McGuiggan studied music in Maynooth University and has a PhD in the philosophy of art from the University of Southampton. He is currently an independent scholar.