The imaginary musical trill of the blackbird filled the Harty Room on Sunday. Not the bird itself but rather the beautiful sound of the flute played so well by Sabrina Hu, accompanied by her husband Cathal Breslin on piano. They were performing a new work by Belfast composer Philip Hammond, entitled ‘An Londubh’, the Irish word for blackbird. It was part of the 51st Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s and was staged by the Belfast Music Society as part of their Northern Lights Mini-Fest.
Cathal had the score stored on his iPad and with wifi technology was able to flick effortlessly from one page to the next. There was an interesting contrast with a similarly named piece (‘Le Merle Noir’ by Messiaen) which Cathal and Sabrina played first. Philip Hammond explained that his composition was intended as a companion piece for the 20thC Frenchman’s work. But his starting point was very different.
Hammond told the audience that rather than the real birdsong, he created a fanciful play between flute and piano , with what he thought a blackbird might sing, if it was so inclined. The main origin of the piece is an ancient Irish air, arranged by Edward Bunting. It was published in the third volume of such arrangements in 1840. He has included it note for note at the end of the work, a fusion that works well. The other influencing factor for Hammond comes in the shape of a poem, written by Dr William Drennan, the United Irishman and friend of Bunting. Drennan wrote it in the grounds of Cabin Hill, near Stormont, when his sister lived there. There is a spot in the grounds called the Drennan stone where he is believed to have rested to seek inspiration. An interesting connection is that Hammond is a former music teacher at Cabin Hill, when it was the preparatory department for Campbell College.
Cathal Breslin is from Derry and met Sabrina when they were both studying in Manchester. They are now married, with two young children, and are based in the United States, where Cathal is Professor of Piano at the University of Memphis, Tennessee. They have performed together internationally since 2001 in many of the world’s main concert halls. Five years ago they founded and developed the Walled City Music Festival in Derry.
Their performance began with A Sonata for Flute and Piano by Poulenc, followed by a piece for flute by Ravel: a habanera, which is a Cuban dance. Cathal who said he was always interested in the correlation between words and music then played another Ravel piece for solo piano, Ondine. There was a lovely mixture here of loud and soft notes. Sabrina played a piece composed by Debussy for solo flute, Syrinx, named after a nymph of Greek mythology. Then came the two blackbird pieces, with particular interest in the composition by Philip Hammond.
The second part of the programme consisted of a Brazilian traditional piece arranged for flute and piano: Choros. The duo followed with Piazzolla’s History of the Tango, a fascinating journey through time as they described it. The Argentine composer brought the tango from the world of the night club to the concert hall. The first part was set in a bordello around 1900, followed by a café in 1935 when the mood becomes more romantic and atmospheric, for listening rather than dancing. Part three is a 1960s night club when the tango merges with Bossa nova. The fourth and final part is set in the modern day concert hall setting of classical music. A very enjoyable performance.