Sweet sound of the city: Cork composer coming home for choral festival

Composer Bernard Geary on revisiting the work 33 years on: ‘It is all about Cork and looking at it now.’

Cork composer Bernard Geary returns to his hometown to hear one of his pieces performed at the choral festival, writes Cathy Desmond

Cork is gearing up to welcome the annual influx of choirs and dance troupes from Ireland and overseas to the biggest event on the county’s cultural calendar. Some 3,500 choristers are expected to converge in a series of events in 60 venues across the city and county this week.

Bernard Geary’s celebration of Cork was commissioned for the opening of Cork 800 in 1985, marking the anniversary of the founding of the city. The work is based on texts drawn from the writings of Edmund Spenser, Seán Ó Faoláin, Father Prout, and an anonymous 14th-century poet.

Father Prout was the poet Francis Sylvester O’Mahony — the composer felt that a work written in praise of Cork would hardly be complete without a reference to some lines from ‘The Bells of Shandon’.

Tomás Ó Canainn, reporting on a New Year’s Eve Gala at City Hall in this paper on January 2, 1985, said: “The concert featured a new composition by Bernard Geary, In Praise of a City and Corkonians gave it the biggest welcome of the evening.”

Sung by Mary Hegarty and two children’s choirs, Ó Canainn said the work “alternated brass fanfares with quiet pastoral music and effective orchestration”. He recommended that the work, with its “stirring climactic finale, should be heard again soon”.

Bernard Geary chuckles when reminded of the occasion as he looks forward to hearing the second performance of the work after a gap of 33 years — not exactly ‘soon’, he concurs, adding that it is always easier to secure a first performance than get a second run of new work.

He is softly spoken and although he has been living in Dublin for nearly five decades, he has lost none of his Cork lilt. In the intervening years he has been busy combining a career in post-primary teaching in Dublin with performing and composing.

Despite an illustrious career, he is modest and self-deprecating. “I’ve been very lucky to have had many commissions. I love the work and I like writing to a deadline,” he says.

Talking about his early experiences, it seems there was a good dollop of serendipity in finding his way into music in his late teens. Early childhood was spent in Gurranabraher where his parents ran a grocery shop.

He taught himself to play piano. “At 16 years of age, I could play ‘Scenes that are Brightest’ with two or three fingers and a funny left hand. One day a man came into the shop and said, ‘why don’t you learn the organ down in St Mary’s and you could get a projectionist job in the Savoy?’ Well it planted a seed in me.”

His parents approached George Brady who was the organist in St Mary’s Church on Pope’s Quay. He took him on and there was no stopping him. He recalls they bought him a new piano and a bicycle “to get him out of the house”.

Geary went on to UCC where he was encouraged in his early compositions by Aloys Fleischman. He recalls his professor’s formal manner. I was always ‘Mr Geary’ even when he invited me to conduct the Cork Symphony Orchestra. I am very proud to be on the same programme as Professor.”

For this occasion, he was persuaded to reorchestrate the score for concert band and redo the choir parts for adult voices, something he says was straightforward with modern music technology. On revisiting the work, Geary says it is quite sentimental music.

“It is all about Cork and looking at it now, even though my harmonic grammar has changed and my style is more contemporary, I believe it is well written and people will like it,” he says.

The Opening Gala Concert at City Hall tomorrow features Aloys Fleischmann’s ‘Clare’s Dragoons’ (Owen Gilhooly, tenor), and Bernard Geary’s ‘In Praise of a City’ (Mairead Buicke, soprano)

Key changes

After more than five years, Cork Choral Festival manager Sinead Dunphy moves on to join the team at the city’s jazz festival.

She was pitched an awkward curveball in her final season with Ed Sheeran’s gigs at Páirc Uí Chaoimh scheduled during the festival’s traditional bank-holiday slot. Cork just isn’t big enough to simultaneously hold both events, so the Choral Festival moved to this week. Dunphy says the festival were surprised when the Sheeran gigs were announced last summer.

“With it came the inevitable problems of losing numerous international groups despite flights and accommodation already booked but also having to reprogramme our Gala Concert programme. 2019 and 2020 are already under way for us and we would hope that the GAA and Páirc Uí Chaoimh will respect the longevity and cultural importance of the Cork International Choral Festival and work with us for all organisations to be able to do their best for the Cork region by planning events that work side by side rather than against each other.”

Cork International Choral festival highlights

  • Thursday, 8pm — A gala concert in Cork City Hall with internationally renowned Swedish group Solala and Ardú Vocal Ensemble. Ardú used to compete here until they turned professional.
  • Friday, 10.30pm — The Tenebrae Consort will perform in the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne, following Tenebrae’s recent Grammy nomination.
  • Saturday, 12.15pm: The Big Sing will take place in Cork City Hall and everyone is invited to come along and learn how to sing together as part of a choir created by the audience.
  • Saturday, 1.30pm — A concert of contemporary choral music in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral with Chamber Choir Ireland includes the Sean O’Riada Prize winning composition by Donal Sarsefield
  • Saturday, 3pm and 8pm — Fleishmann International Gala afternoon and evening concerts, which features hundreds of international voices in Cork City Hall.
  • Sunday, 8pm — Closing Gala Concert with the international choirs in Cork City Hall.
  • Lots of fringe events include concerts in The Freemasons’ Hall and Triskel Arts Centre; Afternoons in the Atrium of the Clayton Hotel.
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