Arguably the most well known song ever, Danny Boy has swiftly become a very favorite of mine since I became intimately acquainted with it a few seasons ago. I mentioned in a previous post that pianist Peter Dugan and I will be launching our album A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song this year. When we were first thinking of concepts for how to organize the program, we knew we wanted it to end with something memorable, powerful and original (to a degree). Peter came to me with his arrangement of “Danny Boy”, which I truly feel is the best piano-vocal version out there. Just to back up that claim, we have been asked many times if the arrangement is available for purchase. We have even been asked by pianist Julius Drake for a copy as well—don’t worry a copy is on its way soon!
Instead of going too far into the depth of the story and the origin of the song. I feel like this one really speaks for itself, and this arrangement gets right to the heart of what the song is all about.
Ten years ago, I discovered an Irish singer-songwriter by the name of Fionn Regan when listening to WXPN, a truly phenomenal member-supported public radio station from the University of Pennsylvania in my hometown of Philadelphia.
Despite my love for all things Italian, I am of Irish descent and two years ago gained citizenship. In addition to feeling more connected with that part of my history, it’s also incredibly convenient, as an opera singer who frequently travels internationally, to possess an Irish passport!
Fionn’s music was instantly appealing: mellow, relaxing, with nimble finger-picking patterns and interesting chord progressions. Lyrically, his songs are incredibly poetic. I would wait eagerly for him to complete each phrase, curious as to which direction he was heading. His rhythmic use of words and his sense of imagery are commendable. Lyrically/musically, he evokes Dylan…both Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas, that is. His 2006 first full-length studio release The End of History remains one of my favorite albums of all time. Songs such as “Snowy Atlas Mountain”, “Abacus”, and “Bunker or Basement” are sensational, but for today I’ve chosen “Be Good Or Be Gone” and its absolutely ingenious music video consisting of numerous multi-location performances spliced together.
I am in a dilemma. I am doing a program about the British Isles at Juilliard on January 11. Later on in the year, I am doing a concert called Four Islands at Caramoor and Merkin Hall on March 12 and 14. The four islands in question are Madagascar, Cuba, Manhattan—and Ireland. So this beautiful Irish piece, Sir Granville Bantock’s “Song to the Seals,” will certainly be on one of them. I just have to decide where best to place it. This is the kind of thing that can keep me awake at night.
“Song to the Seals” is one of those simple tunes that can create a magical aura. Tenor Robert (“Bobby”) White turned me on to it and gave me the music. The first time I programmed it was just after Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died in 2006. It tells the story of a woman who sings with so much power and feeling that all the creatures of the ocean gather around to hear her. Lorraine was that kind of musical enchantress too, casting spell after spell with her voice.
When I collaborated with her in the 1990s, we would sometimes lock horns about musical interpretation. I always lost, and my ego would take a hit. But the last time I worked with her—at Caramoor in 2005—I finally realized the simple truth: this woman is a maga, a sorceress. And her spell must be followed to the letter, or the magic will not happen. You want time to stop, you want an unforgettable musical event? Do it her way. I finally had the wit and the maturity to check my ego at the door and take orders from her in a state of Zen-calm. A ritardando here, with an a tempo on the second half of the third beat of the fourth bar? Check. Poco accelerando here, but no crescendo till the end of the second system? Check. I called it the “Eye of Newt” Law, named after the witches casting their spell in “Macbeth”: “Eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog…” Mess up one ingredient, and you have a real mess on your hands.
Lorraine would have loved “Song to the Seals.” She could make difficult modern scores sound tuneful, she could plumb the depths of Bach. But she also cherished things that are simple and true. Whenever I perform this song, it is for Lorraine.
Here is John McCormack in a classic recording made when he was 51 years old.
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