“For other people, a crossroads is something you walk through. You don’t stay there; you make a decision and you go north, south, east, or west,” says Professor Helen Phelan in relation to her late husband, pianist and composer Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin.
Phelan says that Ó Súilleabháin, who passed away in 2018, said his destiny seemed to be to stay in the middle of the crossroads and hold that tension, to remain in the ‘Between Worlds’.
“He felt that his voice was at that point of tension, that space where it’s neither one thing or the other but you hold open the possibility of everything, and he took on all of the tension and lack of resolution that brings,” adds Phelan. “He felt that that was where his creative voice lived…at the still point of the turning world.”
If as a musician, composer, and educationalist he dwelt at a crossroads of diverse musical directions, at a turning point between innovation and tradition, Ó Súilleabháin had taken many winding paths on his way there.
With an eclectic musical education encompassing classical piano lessons, Irish traditional music, pop group membership, and the influence of university lecturers Seán Ó Riada and Aloys Fleischmann, Clonmel-born Ó Súilleabháin sold his electric guitar and amplifier to buy a record player on which he listened to Yehudi Menuhin’s Brandenburg Concertos which “just blew his mind”.
The trade-off rankled with Ó Súilleabháin, however. “There was something about that — it was literally like having to sell one culture to buy another — that didn’t sit well with him and I think the rest of his life was about trying to keep them all in play —this idea that you shouldn’t have to trade in one for the other; you shouldn’t have to let go of your traditional roots to go to a university to study classical music,” said Phelan, who was last month appointed director of the University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, founded by Ó Súilleabháin upon his move from UCC in 1994.
“I think what Mícheál was trying to do in the academy, in creating spaces where cultures could talk to each other, was the same thing that he was doing compositionally,” she added, “to create these spaces where through these different sonic cultures there could be a meeting point and I think all of his work was about that, creating the opportunity for difference to meet.”
The diverse cultures that shaped Ó Súilleabháin, and which have in turn been shaped by his genius, will converse again next month in 'Lumen: The Music of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin — A Celebration of the Light’, performed in Dublin’s National Concert Hall and at University Concert Hall Limerick, coinciding with the university’s 50th-anniversary celebrations.
A classical pianist born in New York to Irish parents, Phelan had completed a music degree at UCC and master's in NUIG before a chance meeting with Ó Súilleabháin in 1994 saw him invite her to UL, where he outlined his vision for the world academy.
“I remember thinking, 'my God, I think he could do this'. He had what everybody knew about him, the vision, the charisma, the energy, but there was something else about the long game — he was in this, he was committed,” she said. “I couldn’t have known that day that it would be the beginning of a working relationship over the next two decades.”
A collaboration between the National Symphony Orchestra and Ó Súilleabháin’s family, the concert, delayed by the pandemic, serves both as a musical tribute and as the completion of a trilogy of works he had devised with the orchestra, following ‘Elver Gleams’ in 2017 and ‘Between Worlds’ shortly before his death in 2018.
Conducted by David Brophy, the concert features some of Ó Súilleabháin’s most popular orchestral works and an array of musicians and singers with connections to various facets of his vast musical exploration.
“As a family we were really anxious that we would be able to deliver that third concert with the National Symphony Orchestra and had plans in place for that to happen before everything got locked down so it’s really wonderful to see that flowering again now,” said Phelan, who with other family members is also fulfilling her late husband’s wishes for the completion of book, archive, and film documentary projects.
“One of the things that will characterise this concert is that these are all compositions which didn’t feature Mícheál’s own playing — and that was something that he had decided,” she said.
“He had this idea for a while that he wanted to develop new compositions where increasingly he was writing himself out of the pieces.
“He was really interested in the sean-nós voice, that wide orchestral palette, and his idea was that the orchestra would be almost like a sonic landscape into which the voice would sit, so a lot of the new compositions were in and around that and some of those feature in this concert,” she said.
Long-time collaborator Iarla Ó Lionáird, who performs ‘Port na bPúcaí’ and ‘An Buachaill Caol Dubh’, will be joined by fellow sean-nós singers Lillis Ó Laoire and Síle Denvir for ‘Fill Arís’, an orchestral setting of the poetry of Seán Ó Ríordáin, which was premiered during Ó Súilleabháin’s last performance with the orchestra only months before his death.
“Those pieces will be central to this concert and he was really very excited about them; there was a new sound emerging in those compositions,” said Phelan. “ Fill Arís got its premiere performance in 2018 and even after that Mícheál said ‘I know what I can improve, I know what I can change’, which he did, and that version will be performed now in 2022.”
The concert also includes liturgical meditation ‘Templum’, and ‘Termōn’, both of which Ó Súilleabháin requested to be played at his funeral. Love song ‘Bean Dubh an Ghleanna’, ‘Francesco Walks’, and ‘Oileán/Island’ also feature, while soloists include saxophonist Kenneth Edge and flute player Mike McGoldrick, with fiddle players Liz Doherty, Zoë Conway, Aidan O’Donnell, and Katie Boyle, and cellist Neil Martin.
“So many of the musicians who had lifelong musical relationships with Mícheál have been so generous in coming back for this concert,” said Phelan.
“This concert primarily features his orchestral engagement, but of course his music was much broader than that so we wanted to make sure that his relationship with Irish traditional music was represented. He used to perform in a quartet with the late Liam O’Flynn, Paddy Glackin, and Neil Martin and Neil Martin is going to perform slow airs and tunes with Liz Doherty to represent that space.
“The other thing we were very keen to include was his love of working with students and there will be a piece in the programme led by Mel Mercier, his long-time colleague in Cork and Limerick, and Mel has brought together a group of past students to do a piece.
“In additional to the orchestral pieces I hope that those two pieces will represent those other musical loves of Mícheál’s.”
Professor Mercier, who as a teenager first played with Ó Súilleabháin and his first wife Nóirín Ní Riain in the 1970s, twice succeeded his friend and mentor in academic roles, on Ó Súilleabháin’s departure from UCC in 1994 and upon his retirement from UL in 2016.
Mercier, chair of performing arts at the Irish World Academy, will direct an ensemble of senior and past UL and UCC students including Karl Nesbitt, Conor Arkins, Claire Egan, Paul Clesham, and Niamh O’Brien.
“I can still hear the resonance of the music from Mícheál’s farewell concerts when he retired from UL — that seems like only yesterday — and I see these concerts now as kind of partnered with that; it’s like the next piece,” said Mercier.
As percussionist, Mercier regularly performed with Ó Súilleabháin on instantly-recognisable signature pieces such as ‘Oíche Nollag’ and ‘[Must be More] Crispy’. Without Ó Súilleabháin’s dynamic presence on piano, Mercier’s concert performances will focus instead on tunes from Fleischmann’s ‘Sources of Irish Traditional Music’, from the playing of Tommy Potts, on which subject Ó Súilleabháin wrote his PhD thesis, and an excerpt from ‘Eklego’ an experimental piece Ó Súilleabháin recorded with UCC students in the 1990s, crossing synthesiser and studio effects with traditional music.
The concert represents “the end of a silence since Mícheál died”, said Mercier. “I think it will be an emotional experience. It will probably bring that loss into focus. It seems like the silence has been a little bit too long and that in an ideal world we would have sounded his music in a celebratory way before now. I’m very much looking forward to it and the warmth of the community of people that will gather for it, but with a bit of sadness too.
“This is the first time since Mícheál died that we’ll have an opportunity again to create his sound world and for the musicians and the audience to inhabit that again, but this time without Mícheál at the heart of it - and Mícheál was always at the heart of it, not just musically but also in terms of his personality and energy.”