Friday, October 26, 2012

Irish spirit

Sailing to Byzantium, Sunday 21st October, 3pm, Royal Northern College of Music

Words by Michael Smaczylo.

The RNCM Concert Hall is a bit of a time capsule for me. As a child I would play there in violin groups and orchestras, but today is the first time I’ve visited in six or seven years, so it’s great to be back. I’ve always loved music of all sorts and sang at the Montreux Jazz Festival last year. I’m also a big fan of modernist literature and have recently been reading a lot of Joyce and studying his literary context, so when I first heard on the radio, while travelling home from the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, that Christine Tobin, who was named Best Vocalist at the 2008 BBC Jazz Awards, had released an album of WB Yeats poems set to music, it was an extremely exciting prospect. When I saw that she would be performing the songs as part of the Manchester Literature Festival, I knew I had to go along.

Taking the stage with her band, which consists of Phil Robson on guitar, Kate Shortt on cello, Liam Noble on piano and Dave Whitford on double bass, Tobin explains that when asked to talk about Yeats by the National Library of Ireland, she decided that arranging and performing some of his poems would be a far less daunting task, and from this came the idea for the album. The performance begins with a recorded reading of The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by her ex-school teacher and actor Gabriel Byrne, followed immediately by the album’s first song, When You Are Old, a love poem from Yeats’ second collection, The Rose. This is followed by another love poem, The Song of Wandering Aengus (Aengus being the Celtic god of poetic love). 

What is immediately obvious is the prodigious talent of each of the performers; each musician playing extended improvised solos, and Tobin’s voice as rich live as post-production on the album. Between songs she offers context to the poems, telling us, before playing The Wild Swans at Coole that Coole, in County Galway, was the residence of Lady Augusta Gregory, with whom Yeats founded the Irish Literary Theatre, and describing The Second Coming as a "dark and apocalyptic vision"; an atmosphere perfectly conveyed in the music by the ominous 5/4 ostinato and chaotic middle section. Next is The Fisherman, a poem that perfectly exemplifies the romantic notions of Irishness that Yeats is renowned for, and his abhorrence of the crass and the everyday, the "beating down" of art.

Sailing to Byzantium, the album’s title track, is one of Yeats’ most famous poems, written later on in his life at a time when he had become fascinated by Eastern mysticism, and Tobin’s melody and harmonies have an Eastern flavour. What Then?, a poem she describes as a "potted biography" of Yeats’ life, encapsulates his search for affirmation even in old age. I think that my favourite of the arrangements must be In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markiewicz. These were two friends of Yeats’ with whom he eventually disagreed, as they put politics above all else, while he prioritised art. The performance finishes with renditions of Byzantium and Long-Legged Fly (for which Tobin sings through a megaphone), and a reading of The White Birds, again by Gabriel Byrne.

It’s been an incredible performance and I’m feeling completely inspired. I think I might go and arrange some Keats or something. 

Michael Smaczylo is a gap year student who has just completed his A-levels at Manchester Grammar School and hopes to study English Language and Literature at university next year. He Tweets as @mashsmaczylo.