album reviews and artist reflections
review, interview and HTML © Russell W Elliot 2002-2003
ensemble photos © Michael McGlynn and John McGlynn 2001-2002
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last updated: 26 January 2003
In celebration of the release of the Irish choral group's first "best of" compilation--Essential Anúna--we review Cynara and Anúna 2002 and the new album here. We also interview conductor Michael McGlynn and vocalists Lynn Hilary and Lucy Champion in this feature article. An earlier review of Omnis is also online.
Dublin born composer Michael McGlynn founded Anúna in 1987. The original, and current purpose of the group, is to expore unique, beautiful and sometimes forgotten music and texts from medieval and contemporary Ireland and the Celtic lands through Michael's powerful arrangements and original pieces. The group have released 10 albums to date.
The name Anúna derives from the ancient Irish name An Uaithne, which collectively describes the three ancient types of Celtic music, Suantraí (lullaby), Geantraí (happy song) and Goltraí (lament). Since their departure from Riverdance - The Show in 1996, where they were formerly an essential element of original appearances and recordings, they have performed in eleven European countries, Morocco and Canada, often returning for repeat performances. They opened the prestigious Glasgow Celtic Connections Festival 2000 wiehn they performed Michael's Behind the Closed Eye with the Orchestra of the Scottish Opera. In 2003 performances will include a US tour and visits to Finland, France and Holland.
Musical Discoveries: Please tell us a little bit about your backgrounds prior to Anúna.
Michael McGlynn: My original musical impulse came from rock music, which I still listen to, although I find that most of the stuff today is simply aping the 70s and 80s sadly. In 1982 I went to study in college and joined the chamber choir there--what a revelation! I eventually ended up conducting that choir, transferring to another college and conducting their choir too. I decided to then develop my own concept and An Uaithne / Anúna grew out of that.
Lynn Hilary: I come from a very musical family so even though I didn't start singing until the age of seventeen, I was always surrounded by it, I absorbed a lot of it. My mother is a wonderful singer, and my sister was the one who initially followed in her footsteps. It was when my sister lost interest in singing that I stepped forward!
I began singing lessons, and needing some sort of experience in performing--being quite shy--I started singing in my church, from this I began singing regularly at weddings and funerals and I also conduct the church children’s choir. I auditioned for a place in a restricted music performance course and was successful.
Since then I have grabbed every opportunity that has come along. I have been singing with two friends of mine in a vocal harmony group for the past year, we do regular gigs around Dublin, but this is mostly for fun and experimentation with different styles of music. Taking over for my mother I also occasionally sing backing vocals for RTE. I love exploring all aspects of music, from performing to composing to teaching, and hope to continue the exploration for a long long time.
Lucy Champion: I graduated from the London College of Music in 1987 with an honours degree. From then I did a fair amount of "session" singing and was on the professional church choir circuit in the City in London. I was also a member of the London Philharmonic Choir as a music student where I learned a great deal about choral singing (good and bad!) and had the opportunity to sing some fantastic repertoire with some of the world's finest conductors. I was also a member of a number of chamber choirs in London, which was a pleasant break from singing the larger choral repertoire.
I knew, however, that this was not the way to earn a living and by that time I was bitten by the orchestral management bug. I first started as Assistant Promotions Manager for Universal Publishers--a great education in contemporary music--and then went on to be the PA to the CEO and Chairman of the London Philharmonic Orchestra for just over two years. This led me on to the post of Administrator of the Wren Orchestra, also in London, where I established an education programme as part of the orchestra's activities.
In 1993 I moved to Belfast and worked as manager of Concerts and Events Management for the Ulster Orchestra, a post I held for almost five years. It was an interesting time to live in Belfast, since it was prior and post the 1994 ceasefire. This job was particularly demanding and therefore I had very little time for singing.
The BBC Producer was also an enlightening and very brave conductor, and I had the good fortune to sing some really ambitious repertoire in his chamber choir, such as Schoenberg's "Friede auf Erden", the Rachmaninov Vespers, Handel's Dixit Dominus and all six Bach Motets.
In 1998 I moved to Dublin to become the Education and Community Outreach Manager for the National Concert Hall - a job which I greatly enjoy. I became a member of Anúna just before I left Belfast, as Michael was short of a singer for some recording sessions! So, Anúna is my main choral activity since living in Dublin.
Please tell us about the formation of Anúna and its development over the choir's ten albums.
Michael: As there were no guidelines, we developed at our own pace and in a uniquely Irish way. The songs were virtually all new to most of the audience, as most of them were original pieces of my own. I needed to explain them, which meant there was a lot of talk, lots of movement, lots of laughter all of which combined to hide the difficulty of some of the pieces.
Beyond the purely performance-related aspects of Anúna, the sound of the choir had to change. Most of the big-voiced singers left, simply because they were unwilling or unable to blend with the smaller, untrained voices. As a result the music had to be specially arranged and tailored, as it still is, to take into account the unique sound that I wanted wished to create. With a developing audience, Anúna began recording on its own label Danú.
I made many very uninformed and expensive mistakes, but eventually managed to record the album Anúna in 1993 in five hours with a single stereo microphone under the expert eye of Brian Masterson. I also created a limited company, Anúna Teoranta, to help in the way the group was run. Suddenly I was flying to the USA to meet record companies, and had a bidding war going on between a number of them. The sound was fresh, new and accessible--in fact an entirely new form of choral music. Since 1993, Anúna have recorded eight albums, which consist primarily of my own original works produced by Brian and I.
The sound of the choir, despite there having been 130 people through it, remains virtually the same over the last 15 years. The music has also become much more sophisticated, particularly on the album Cynara which has very few soloists present on it.
And once you joined Anuna, what happened next?
Lynn: Since joining Anúna, my interest in all aspects of music grew. From being around people from whom I could learn an awful lot, were willing to give me experience and seemed to believe in my abilities and see potential, I feel my confidence has grown also. I've benefited from working with the group, it has not been hard, everyone is such fun to be around, everyone seems very supportive of everyone else and there doesn't even seem to be any rivalry among the singers.
I have had the opportunity to see countries I might otherwise never have seen, and I think being in the group has crystallised the fact that I would like to work in music somehow in the future, and enjoy working with musicians, I have been very fortunate so far.
What has the development process been like?
Lynn: I found it quite easy to settle in, once you learn the music and you are willing to listen and learn, the progress seems to occur naturally. When you get used to the voices around you, you start to hear the blend improving. The more you listen and observe, the more you become aware of the mistakes you and others are making.
Lucy: In terms of my own development, as a singer since joining Anúna, it has been immense! Firstly, singing in Irish has been a pure pleasure--a new and beautiful language to me. Also, the fact that we don't use music and that basically Michael treats the group like a rock group for its performance technique on stage has been fascinating to be part of. Anúna is a single instrument rather than a group of individual singers and that has also been very interesting to be part of.
How do you feel about your solo opportunities?
Lynn: I have been very fortunate with solo opportunities, luckily I came to the group with some solo experience so I was only marginally frightened when given my first large solo at my first Anúna concert! It's one of my favourite things when a solo goes well and when people respond well to it, but at the same time, my most painful moments are when I mess it up and kick myself for days after. It helps that most Anúna songs are a treat to sing, and Michael will usually find a solo for you that suits you. Plus you have the energy force of the choir behind you when you stand out to do a solo, which makes it unlike any other situation.
Lucy: Well, I enjoy recording solos more than singing them live! It puts the spotlight on oneself and that does not necessarily mean as a singer. Because there was a long gap for me whilst in Belfast where I did not do any solo work at all, I found it very hard to sing solo live again. I prefer to leave it to people who do it well--the highest standard of performance is of paramount importance and that can only come from people that you can rely upon.
How would you say the sound has evolved over the albums?
Michael: It actually hasn't evolved at all. The only major difference is the emphasis away from soloists. The choral sound of Anúna has to be one of the most beautiful instruments I have ever heard, so naturally soloists placed in front of it are enhanced significantly, while adding their particular skill to a piece. However, it is the sound of the choir that reigns supreme I feel.
Who are some of your favourite artists?
Michael: I have no real favourites, but listen to a very wide selection of material. I have a soft spot for Annie Haslam's voice in Renaissance, David Sylvian, Bjork--particularly the beautiful Vespertine album, John Foxx, Miles Davis, Elaine Elias, medieval and early renaissance music, Debussy, Machaut, Jeff Buckley - and my choral music is strongly influenced by the weird and wonderful music of Price Carol Gesualdo di Venosa. Most recently I have fallen in love with the Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach collaboration and Elvis's collaboration with opera singer Anne Sophie von Otter.
Lucy: It's probably easier to say what I don't like as I generally like listening to all kinds. However, here are a few: Eliane Elias, Elvis Costello and Ann Sofie von Otter's album, Bjork, Miles Davies, Rajaton, Clannad. I love listening to orchestral music and quite a lot of contemporary music. Complete no-no's are: Verdi, Wagner, Morton Feldman and Michael Nyman!
Lynn: My answer is always the same no matter how inappropriate it may seem! Michael Jackson is my favourite artist for countless reasons. His musical talent is innate and in no way manufactured, you can see this by looking at him performing when he was only four years old. I am very fond of dance in general but I think the way he moves to portray the music in such a natural, untrained manner is unlike anything the world has seen before, or will ever see again. It is rare that an artist can be so versatile in singing, composing, dancing and performing.
The artists I find myself listening to are those who, like I have said before, have an innate musical talent, it is something unmistakable and 'unfakeable' in music. There are so many musical frauds around these days and it's almost sad to think that one does not even have to be innately musical to sell thousands of records. I listen to The Beach Boys, Michael McDonald, the Carpenters, the Doobie Brothers, Labi Siffre, Steely Dan, Tina Arena, Ella Fitzgerald, and have recently come to admire Jeff Buckley. I am aware of the genius of many Classical composers and admire a lot of classical works though I do not listen to a lot of classical music, bar perhaps Debussy.
How did you develop your vocal style?
Lynn: I suppose I began developing my vocal style when I was quite young by imitating singers, and I always had a singing voice though I didn't sing publicly as a child. When it came to starting lessons 99% of my teachers work was getting me to sing out louder! I still have a habit of imitating other singers, sometimes subconsciously, so a style that is fully mine is probably yet to be found.
I don’t restrict myself to one style of singing, I would like to remain vocally versatile and be able to sing classical, pop, jazz, rock or whatever. With Anúna, the singers are encouraged to sing in their natural voices, therefore I feel a lot more comfortable singing in Anúna than when I am singing classical music, because I am not forcing my voice, I am just letting it come out as it is. Some singers natural voices are hidden behind years of incorrect training, and the training Anúna (Michael) can encourage is to find the natural voice again.
Lucy: I develop my vocal style by listening to others and discussing it with Michael. I trained for three years as a singer at college and learned nothing. My techniques were achieved by "doing". Michael is extremely specific about vocal training during rehearsals--blend and listening to each other are the two things he focuses on. Also, singing so that you can actually understand the words which is a new concept to many classically trained singers.
Michael also talks a great deal about dropping the jaw. It sounds simple, but you try it, particularly if you are nervous! The concept of warming up is also a bit of an urban myth, I've discovered since being in Anúna. You're better of just sitting somewhere quietly for five minutes before a concert and either doing a visualisation exercise or some deep breathing.
What artists to you feel have influenced the sound?
Michael: Anúna does not sound like any other choir I have ever heard. What I would do is aspire to the discipline of excellent choral groups such as Chanticleer or The Tallis Scholars, but as the sound is created completely differently it needs different ears to the standard choral ones. I am interested in extracting the "soul" of the voice which is very often not what many choral directors want, as it inhibits blend.
Lucy: I would hazard a guess as: Bjork, Maire Brennan, Elvis Costello, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra.
How does the group work together?
Michael: Very eye-opening to outsiders. It is a tyrannical democracy! I am the tyrant, but they are very verbal and must be convinced by my direction before accepting it. we have a great time socially after we have worked, but all of us are qually committed to the idea of creating the perfect sound.
Tell us a little bit about the others that work with you in the recording process.
Michael: I have worked with the Grammy-Award winning engineer Brian Masterson for many years, and he is my most consistent collaborator. The engineer Paul Ashe Browne has provided great live sound for us for a very great number of years. Beyond this I love working with the violinist Aingeala de Burca, percussionist Noel Eccles, harpists Denise Kelly and Anne Marie O Farrell and most particularly with my twin brother and co-director John McGlynn who plays brilliant and very original guitar. His insights are always incredibly valuable.
And what is it like in the studio?
Lynn: The studio is somewhere I feel very comfortable, because there is no pressure or nerves like in a performance. Plus you get a few chances to sing your bit so you don’t have to worry about getting it right the first time. Though it has to be VERY right at some time in the process, slip ups are allowed in a performance, not in a studio.
Lucy: Absolutely awful! Studio recording is always tricky for singers, so much more so than a church, although it is warmer! Because we are not professional singers and not recording on a regular basis it takes an inordinate amount of time to get just one track done. It's worth it in the end but it is a very long, protracted experience. From the technical aspect of how Michael and the producer, Brian Masterson, works it is infinitely fascinating.
Lynn: I'm happy the way things are going, I'm just going with the flow and working at it, and usually other things come along to keep me busy. I have two more years of college so I'm not making any huge plans. I intend trying a lot of other things in the future but I have enough on my plate at the moment. Anúna is not even a huge commitment, it leaves plenty of time for other musical things.
Do you have a career or work outside music?
Lynn: I'm glad to say not really, most of the things I'm involved in are music related in some way. I don’t want to waste any time. I've found what I want to do, what I'd be happy doing ‘til I'm too old so I don’t see the point in dilly dallying with things that don’t really interest me. Might as well do what I love and what gives me energy.
How about your live performances? How does the audience react?
Michael: It varies, but feedback often is ecstatic--words like peace, spiritual, uplifting are always passed around. This gladdens me as at the most basic level that is what I am trying to achieve for people.
Lynn: The audience always appear to enjoy it. What surprises me is how intently people listen. Even for corporate gigs when people are our having a laugh and they aren't expecting us to come along, they seem pleasantly surprised and always seem genuinely interested in the music. I suppose you feed off that in your performance. When you enjoy yourself when you're performing, that's what an audience picks up on I think.
Lucy: Extremely positively, because of one word--accessibility. Michael talks to the audience and makes them feel part of the concert.
Please tell us your version of the Riverdance story.
Michael: The best word to describe the Riverdance phenomenon was serendipity, literally "a happy accident." Granted, all the participants were talented people, but it was simply a case of all being together in the right place at the right time, singers, dancers and musicians. The Celtic tiger was just a cub in 1994 and there was a positive feel beginning to materialise in the country. Suddenly "Riverdance" was at number one in the Irish charts for 18 weeks representing all the dreams and hopes of the nation.
Initial euphoria gave way to all of the anxieties that come with sudden success. Riverdance understandably began to take the form of a business, as opposed to an artistic creation. It was at this stage in late 1995 that I had had enough. I was anxious to get out, and it took a year to do so. Today I look back on the experience with mixed feelings. Fourteen singers remained with Riverdance, which caused huge problems, but we did produce some of our finest records at this time. All in all Riverdance was character forming, and the things I have learnt about the industry were worth the experience in itself.
Despite the success of Riverdance, in this country today Anúna is still very much a cult phenomenon with a very loyal following. It provides regular training, unique performance opportunities and paid work for young singers that they may not otherwise get. It also represents Ireland abroad as a sophisticated ancient musical nation with a vibrant and challenging contemporary music culture. However, the group currently receives no third party funding of any sort, and in 2001 was refused grant aiding by the Arts Council of Ireland.
Please tell us about some of the vocalists that developed through and Anuna and have branched off.
Michael: I really don't think its fair to do this as there have been huge number of them. I don't want to single out any one soloist as so many of them have been succesful, but not often in rock or pop music. I really like to keep Anuna fresh so new people are the name of the game for me, though if singers want to come back the door is open for that possibilities. However it is unlikely that a soloist would want to stand in the back line!
Please tell us about the new album. Is any of the material redone or is it a compilation?
Michael: Essential Anúna is a "best of" type compilation. It features some of the finest work, and most popular material, that we have ever done. Working with Mark Wilkinson of Universal we went through eight of the records and chose a balanced selection of material which includes his favourites and mine. My favourites included "Victimae" and "Wind on Sea," but the album also includes the sublime "Blue Bird" and "Media Vita."
The choir's population is ever-evolving. How do you search for and grow your talent?
Michael: They come to me. In Ireland there is no oulet for those who don't want to be opera singers, so I get a wonderful selection of voices to choose from. However they often come to me with little training and that can be laborious work!
How has the internet influenced your career and the promotion of your music. Do you think that your website will bring you many new fans?
Michael: I am the webmaster! The animation was created by the excellent Amanda Peters. We set up the site in 1993, one of the first anywhere. the site is hugely informative with video and music downloads, but also it acts as a window on the world that we would not otherwise have. Without it I don't think the group would survive.
Lucy: The website has been effective way of learning about the group and for interested parties to buy sheet music and CDs. It's very well designed for these purposes, but as for bringing new fans, no--this comes from word of mouth and experience of the live event.
Essential Anúna. Released as 2002 came to a close, the choir's vast 24-track selection spans a wide cross-section of their prior recordings. With a total running time of just over 75 minutes, it is their first release on the Universal Classics label. A complete roster of the singers involved and the director's standard numerical cross-referencing scheme has been used to identify the soloists in each of the tracks. Lucy Champion and Joanna Fagan dominate the soprano solos and are each featured on five tracks. Lyrical content within the material varies between Gaelic and English.
As the album title implies, the album is a collection of the "best of" the group's prior recordings. The choir creates their music largely without accompaniment; an occasional percussion part adds needed rhythm while traditional strings and woodwinds provide sprinklings of other flavours to some of the material. Different textures arise primarily from the vocal arrangements. The track sequence on Essential Anúna varies between male-dominated, female-dominated and full choir sounds. Clearly "Gaudete" is one of the standout tracks--it includes all three of these arrangement styles in one short piece.
McGlynn has selected a wide range of top vocal talent to participate in the choir. But it is the soaring soprano solos that set the material apart for many. It is not surprising that some of these women have ventured away from the choir to start solo careers. Their individual contributions are not specifically singled out in the liner notes of this release. Lynn Hilary's solo in "The Wild Song" and solos by Kim Lynch and Lucy Champion in "The Rising Of The Sun" are two of the notable. Equally delighteful is Lucy's solo in "Miserere."
The Irish classic "Siúil, A Rúin" will clearly be one of the album's standouts for many listeners. Recorded earlier by Clannad, Capercaillie and a bevy of other artists, the choir's rendition is vocally lush, supported well by instrumental arrangements and Lucy Champion's lead is stunning. Joanna Fagan's rendition of "Winter, Fire and Snow" is equally delightful; choir arrangements and acoustic guitar provide perfect accompaniment for the lead singer. Lucy and Joanna's solos are supported by a lush harp arrangement and a collection of other female singers in "Hymn To The Virgin." Secret Garden's (review) rich arrangement of "I Know A Rose Tree" featuring the full choir concludes the album. Indeed this album is Essential Anúna
Cynara. The most recent album of new Anúna material was recorded in 2000 and includes fifteen tracks by the choir. A collection of 12th-18th century and contemporary material written by Michael McGlynn, its lyrical content includes Gaelic, English and Spanish. The material is mostly choral but occasional instrumental arrangements underscore the vocals. The individual selections included on the album are short but work well together forming a cohesive whole. Generally the album includes more "full choir" style arrangements than we recall of their earlier recordings.
The Enya recording of "Marble Halls" exposed the classic to a wide range of audiences. Anúna's arrangement of the traditional tune, sung in English by Joanna Fagan and supported by the choir, is an absolute knock-out. Listeners familiar with the ensemble's work will recognise the style of "Riu Riu" to be similar to "Gaudete" although the solo portions are sung by Andrew Redmond (in Spanish) instead of one of the female vocalists (in Gaelic).
The lead for the title track "Cynara" is sung in English by the choir's director and is a wonderful illustration of his vocal clarity and range. "Buachaill ón Éirne" is a more folky track (with lead) sung by Michael's brother John McGlynn. He is supported by acoustic guitar and the lush yet subdued vocal textures of the choir.
Michael McGlynn's rich arrangement of "Pie Jesu" for Anúna highlights the solo work of Monica Donlon and it is stunning. Unlike renditions by Sarah Brightman and Charlotte Church, this version is much more choral yet it permits the listener to hear the Monica's crystalline soprano voice as well. "Ocean" is a delightful piece with lush string arrangements perfectly complimenting full choir as well as Monica Donlon's soaring soprano solo excursions. Clearly a development from the ensemble's earlier albums, Cynara is certain to delight experienced listeners and newcomers to Anúna as well.
Anúna 2002. This 20-track collection is a completely re-recorded version of the original 1993 album and was released to mark the 15th anniversary of Anúna. The album includes five brand-new trakcs, including three that featured in the award winning film The Work of Angels. Instrumentals--violin, tin whistle, guitar and percussion--effectively compliment the choir's vocals on this album.
One will instantly hear the difference between Anúna 2002 and Cynara--this is an album for female vocalist enthusiasts and it features extensive solo work by sopranos Lucy Champion, Kim Lynch, Joanna Fagan and Monica Donlon. In addition to tracks where they are featured with lead vocal parts, their vocals soar through instrumental and choir arrangements in others. The album begins with the Gaelic tune "The Dawn" sung by Kim Lynch with only a hint of choir supporting her lead. Joanna Fagan's crystalline lead in the vocal standout "Silent, O Moyle" is perfectly supported by harp and soft accompanying choir.
Another album standout is "Jerusalem" featuring contrasting vocal solos by Lucy Champion and Monica Donlon. From the liner notes, "One of the Kilmore carols. The chorus is arranged in a style known as heterophony, still practiced today in the western isles of Scotland." John McGlynn's lead in the rapidfire Scottish mouth music "Fionnghuala" is perfectly underscored by the rest of the choir. We fell in love with Monica Donlon's perfectly crystalline and soaring soprano lead in the Irish lullaby "Suantrai."
As with several other albums by Anúna, 2002 includes the ensemble's unique rendition of material popularised by other groups. "The Sally Gardens," led by Joanna Fagan's stunning voice is accompanied by acoustic guitar with the other singers providing backing vocals. An evocative violin solo during the bridge is supported by equally lovely choral textures. The Irish folk style "Si Do Mhaimeo Í" has a thick vocal arrangement, crisp traditional percussion, neither of which cover up Monica Donlon's crystalline Gaelic lead.
Lucy Champion's vocal range is the bright spot, soaring in "Crist and St. Marie," an otherwise repetitive yet short droning piece. The album's one pure instrumental is a harp solo by Denise Kelly entitled "Kells." We especially enjoyed "The Blue Bird" a short choral track featuring Joanna Fagan's solos. "The First Day" includes tremendous whistle solos that compliment Kim Lynch's Gaelic lead vocal underpinned by the male choir. The album concludes with "Hymn to the Virgin" with alternating vocal solos by Lucy Champion, Jaonna Fagan and Derina Johnson sung in 6th Century Latin and supported by Denise Kelly's lush harp accompaniment.
For those just discovering Anúna, this album is as important as Essential. The new recording of the earlier material by new singers and bonus tracks will equally delight long-time fans.
Read further reviews, listen to soundbites and order Anúna's albums from amazon.com: Cynara, Anuna 2000, Invocation. Essential Anúna is presently available from from amazon.co.uk. Our interview with Michael McGlynn, Lucy Champion and Lynn Hilary and reviews of the three albums above has provided a small insight into the choir's work, past and present.
Interested visitors will also find reviews of solo recordings by ex-Anúna singers at Musical Discoveries. Use our search engine to locate them. Clearly worth a trans-Atlantic journey, Anúna's albums should be explored by female vocalist enthusiasts. We certainly found these three to all be a must listen!
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