The death has taken place of the concert pianist Eily O’Grady, widow of Frank Patterson, the acclaimed Irish tenor who died in New York in 2000 aged 62. She is survived by her son Éanan, a violinist, who used to perform with his parents, and three sisters, including the violinist Geraldine O’Grady from Dundrum. Her funeral is taking place tomorrow (Wednesday) at 10.30am in the Church of the Holy Cross, Dundrum, Dublin, followed by burial alongside her husband at St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary.
I remember meeting Frank and Eily during the mid-1970s when they would come over to Birmingham for St Patrick’s Day concerts, performing along with Eily’s relatives, the traditional folk group Na Casaidigh. I recall interviewing them for BBC Radio Birmingham and they were both very friendly and easygoing. Rest in Peace.
Frank Patterson achieved international recognition and fame as one of the outstanding tenors of his generation. With a career spanning more than three decades, he was Ireland’s Golden Tenor. Frank attained the pinnacle of his profession and was acclaimed for his artistry in oratorio and in classical song as well as for his Irish and international repertoire.
Frank’s musical career began as a boy soprano in his hometown of Clonmel, County Tipperary. In 1962, the aspiring artist went to Dublin to begin formal vocal studies with Dr. Hans Waldemar Rosen, pursuing at the same time a course of acting at the National Academy of Theater and Allied Arts. After only two years of study, the young performer won all the major awards at Ireland’s national music festival, the Feis Ceoil. Following Frank’s successes, he was in demand for classical recitals around Ireland, but he was particularly noted for his performances in oratorio.
Early in 1966, Frank toured as soloist with Feis Eireann, a group of other young Irish singers and dancers, on an extensive tour of America. The pianist and musical director was Eily O’Grady, an accomplished member of the well-known Dublin musical family. Tenor and pianist fell in love on that tour, which would serve as prelude to a harmonious union and professional partnership. After a three-day honeymoon, the newlyweds left on another four-month tour of the U.S. and Canada. On their return from that tour, Frank and Eily left for London so Frank could continue his vocal studies.
In 1968, Frank was extended an opportunity to study with the famous French soprano Janine Micheau. Seizing that chance, the young couple moved to Paris. The four years in France would have daunted a less committed team but not Frank and Eily, for both believed fervently in his talent. To help finance Frank’s studies during that period, Frank and Eily gave frequent concerts and radio performances. A broadcast of Purcell’s songs on BBC radio brought Frank to the attention of the Phillips Record Company. Recognizing his talent, Phillips quickly placed the gifted tenor under contract, recording six albums within three years; thus began Frank Patterson’s distinguished and celebrated recording career.
From that favorable beginning, Frank recorded more than 40 albums in six languages, including opera, oratorio, and songs by Purcell, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Berlioz. A later Phillips classic compilation featured Frank Patterson singing Handel arias and Hugo Wolf songs with Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, Elly Ameling, and Herman Prey. His worldwide popularity expanded, in part because of the success of his crossover albums featuring Irish ballads, Broadway hits, inspirational songs, and modern international favorites. His numerous sales won him platinum, gold, and silver discs, and two of his American releases reached million-dollar status.
As Frank’s reputation grew, so too did the demand for his talent in concert recitals, radio and television broadcasts, and oratorio performances throughout Europe. His performance as the evangelist in the Bach Passions won particular praise. He performed at many of the great musical festivals of Europe, including the Aix-en-Provence where he sang Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis under the baton of Karl Richter. Additionally, he sang at the famous Promenade Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall in London and appeared as soloist with many of the leading European orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Liverpool Philharmonic, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, RAI Symphony, Rome, Basle Kammerorchestrer, Switzerland, and the Irish National Symphony.
In America, he performed with the National Symphony in Washington, DC, as well as with the Colorado, St. Louis, Hartford, Syracuse, Rochester, Utah, and Seattle symphonies. In sold-out performances, Frank sang in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Washington’s Kennedy Center, Boston’s Symphony Hall, and Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall, among others. He was the first Irish artist to have his own show in New York’s famous Radio City Music Hall, selling out its 6,000 seats for six consecutive years. His audiences continued to grow in number and dedication.
His greatest outdoor American performance was at the steps of the Capitol in Washington, DC, when he performed with the National Symphony before an audience of 60,000 enthusiastic listeners. During the centennial celebration of the inauguration of the Statue of Liberty, Frank joined American opera stars Anna Moffo, Simon Estes,and Robert Merrill in a televised performance from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The quartet ended the program with a moving rendition of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. This song was to become Frank’s favorite for expressing his great love and appreciation for this country and its people.
As the world took note of Frank Patterson’s remarkable talent, Academy-Award-winning director John Huston invited Frank to play a featured role as the fictional tenor, Bartell D’Arcy, in Huston’s last film The Dead, starring Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann. The New Yorker wrote of Frank’s performance: “The whole world seems still while he sings, and for a few seconds after.” Following that pivotal role, Frank was invited to sing Danny Boy in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Miller’s Crossing and to play an Irish tenor in the Neil Jordan movie Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson, Julia Roberts, Aidan Quinn, and Stephen Rea.
In addition to his big-screen performances, Frank was a veteran television performer. He hosted his own top-rated TV series, Frank Patterson, For Your Pleasure, on RTE (Irish Television) from 1974 to 1984. When Fox Television asked him to perform with Tracy Ullman on an episode of the Tracy Ullman Show, Frank readily agreed because it not only provided him an opportunity to sing and act, but also it allowed him to showcase his comedic skills. This episode, Real Lace, was nominated for an Emmy Award. Frank’s success in commercial television foreshadowed his achievements on public television stations (PBS). Frank became a PBS phenomenon with his three highly successful specials: Ireland’s Golden Tenor-Ireland in Song; Frank Patterson-Songs of Inspiration; and God Bless America, his final filmed salute to this country.
In 1982, President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan invited Frank and Eily to perform at the White House for them and their distinguished guests. As an Irish-American, President Reagan was proud of Frank’s accomplishments, and as an ex-actor, he appreciated Frank’s talent. On a personal level, President Reagan was pleased that his family also hailed from County Tipperary, only ten miles from Clonmel, Frank’s birthplace. In 1995, Frank and Eily were invited for a return performance to the White House, this time for President and Mrs. Clinton. Éanán, Frank and Eily’s gifted son, joined his parents at their second White House performance, accompanying his father on the violin. Eanan later graduated from the pre-college Juilliard School of Music and Fordham University.
While Frank was honored to perform at the White House, the highlight of his career came in 1979, when he sang at the Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, before a congregation of 1.3 million people and an estimated television audience of 1000 million during Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Ireland. Frank was privileged to sing for His Holiness a second time when he was chosen as soloist for the Pope’s 1996 visit to New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. On that occasion Frank sang Schubert’s Ave Maria, a performance that was again broadcast on national television.
Of the many awards Frank received, he was proudest of the honor bestowed upon him by His Holiness, Pope John Paul II. In 1984, the Holy Father conferred on Frank the Knighthood of Saint Gregory, the highest honor the Vatican can confer on a layman. Frank was also a Knight of Malta and a Knight Commander of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, two organizations devoted to helping others for more than nine centuries. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island in 1990 as well as an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Manhattan College of New York in 1996.
In 1998, Frank and Eily were awarded the prestigious gold medal of the Eire Society of Boston, joining a distinguished group of past recipients such as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and John Huston. To be given this award as a couple exemplified the unique partnership that Frank and Eily enjoyed in their professional and personal lives. The honors continued as Frank was awarded The 2000 Norman Vincent Peale Award for Positive Thinking in the Arts. Presented by the Blanton-Peale Institute, this award is given to people “whose lives clearly and inspirationally exemplify the power of thinking positively, with faith, deep caring for people and dedicated commitment to improving our world.”
Although Frank Patterson sang for the Pope and Presidents, performed in the great concert halls throughout the world, and entertained movie and television audiences here and abroad, he found his greatest joy in sharing his gift of song in hundreds of small churches and intimate venues throughout Ireland and America. These charitable events provided both spiritual and financial enrichment to causes that continue to sustain life and promote peace and unity among men.