Derry-Londonderry's oldest building is the perfect setting for a uniquely historical musical event
All flutes unite for the Relief Of Derry Symphony. From left to right: David Wray (William King Memorial Flute Band), Janice Channing (Churchill Flute Band), Doreen Curran (vocal soloist), Marcas O'Murchu (trad flute), Mel Orriss (arranger and conductor), Sarah Murphy (Festive Flutes), Tim Cairns (Hamilton Flute Band).
More than two decades ago, a composer named Shaun Davey was commissioned to write a symphony marking the 300th anniversary of The Siege Of Derry in 1689. Fast forward to the present day, and St. Columb's Cathedral, Derry-Londonderry's oldest building, is reuniting the Hamilton, Churchill and William King Memorial Flute Bands for the first time in three years. They are to play a specially arranged reprise of Davey's composition, along with vocalist Doreen Curran, acclaimed trad flute player Marcas O'Murchu, and the classical Festive Flutes quartet.
The Relief Of Derry Symphony is a community project. Two years in the making, eighty flutes (ten different types), percussion and vocals have interlinked in an effort to shine a spotlight on both the flute as an instrument and the flute bands in the city. Generations of professional and amateur flautists of all ages have practiced an extremely varied repertoire on a weekly basis, setting us up for a momentous occasion.
Fluorescent light beams either side of the stage greet the eyes of the St. Columb's Cathedral audience, calming the orchestra in front of the numerous television cameras present. The lights are an even more reassuring presence for stand-in conductor Simon Mowbray; regular conductor Winston Robinson is, alas, unwell. But Robinson would surely be encouraged by what he sees early on, a grand but neatly understated take on the "Holyrood March" from the Churchill and Hamilton bands. The flutes take a back seat to the reverberating backing instruments at this stage, but they will have their proverbial moment in the spotlight before we know it.
The two bands continue their warm up with another march, "Action Front", whose foot-tapping beat makes up for any minor deficiencies at this stage. With the audience now fully warmed up themselves, there is no better time for the Festive Flutes – Joss Campbell, Elizabeth Walker, Sarah Murphy and Sandi Skipper – to make their presence felt, and they do so with Elgar's Enigma Variations. The delicate harmonies and sweet synchronicity in their performance create a blissful ambience similar to the sound of a rippling brook on a dry spring day in the park. The spectacular "Nimrod", a smoothly mournful build to an epic boom that softly dies out, is the perfect lead in for the main event.
We hear four movements, conducted by Mowbray and Mel Orriss, and arranged by Orriss. A foreboding opening worthy of the masterful "Fanfare For The Common Man" leads into a sound much richer and far more assured than anything that has preceded it so far. A motif then plays to signify the storytelling in the piece – the two Kings, James II and William of Orange, preparing for battle at the Siege Of Derry – before the remainder of the piece raises the tale of the battle itself and its aftermath. Cue strong percussion, a deceptively meek flute solo, and the loud sound of bells, whistles and drums repeatedly intertwining with one another at the most appropriate moments. It is a musical tale of calm before the storm, then calm again, unique for its various moods – apprehensive, triumphant, mournful and funereal at once. Special mention should be reserved for the detachment of pipes and snare drums heard from the church galley at the end of the second movement – their presence and sound is both vibrant and inspiring. Ditto Doreen Curran and her alto voice on "The White Horse" during the third movement, even if she has to fight a little to make herself heard amidst the woodwinds that wash around her.
The final movement, a mixture of Irish airs, thorough harmonies and a conquering coda, initially seems tonally muddled, but on reflection this is essential to the conclusion of the tale being told; chaotic, violent surroundings dissolving into relief, an eventual hope that peace and goodwill lies just around the corner. The history of the city and its present day closeness have been thoroughly and intricately presented in an eye-opening composition for a popular woodwind instrument. If we ever needed confirmation of the sheer melodic beauty that the flute possesses, we've found it here.
(Photo courtesy of the Maiden City Festival 2013.)