Proinnsías Ó DuinnBorn: October 18th, 1941, Clontarf, Dublin (Ireland)
From that moment on, nobody could side-track young Proinnsías from reaching his goal. Switching instruments, he bought a second-hand cello: “Instinctively, I realised that, in order to understand the psychology of an orchestra, you have to experience being in one. What makes an orchestra tick? What makes them respond, and why? So I took up studying the cello at the Royal Academy of Music in Dublin. I must have been twelve or thirteen. My teacher was Coral Bognuda, a lady from New Zealand who was very good for me. As soon as I could, I started playing in string quartets. As my brother was studying the clarinet, I was able to team up with him in clarinet quintets as well as string quartets. He had the talent to go into the business professionally, but there were too few clarinet jobs in Dublin available to take the financial risk. All the same, he was an important influence on me.”
Alongside the cello, Proinnsías continued to play the piano as a secondary instrument. Briefly, he also took orchestration classes with Archie Potter. Meanwhile however, his school career at the Christian Brothers in Fairview, Dublin, didn’t exactly flourish. “I neglected my homework; music was everything for me. As a schoolboy, listening to a record of the Dutch Swing College Band, I became very interested in Dixieland music. With five friends, I founded a band, the Liffissippi Jazz Band, in which I played the piano. It lasted for some four years. We played some concerts in town halls… we were not allowed to play in dance halls, though, as Dixieland was thought to encourage jiving and unseemly dancing. Welcome to Ireland in the 1950s! Meanwhile, my father was getting rather restive at the prospect of me wanting to progress in music professionally. He felt it was too precarious a business to build a career and a family. In the end, he persuaded me to follow a two-year course at the College of Commerce in Rathmines. Meanwhile, I continued my music studies at Dublin’s College of Music.”
By that time, Proinnsías had composed his first pieces of chamber music. “The very first one was when I was fifteen,” he comments. “It was a sonata for clarinet and piano, written for my brother… who showed it to the clarinettist of the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra. That guy, Michele Incenzo, took an interest and performed it on nationwide radio. Later, I performed a sonata for cello and composed a nonette, a piece composed for nine instruments – in other words, stuff that needed a conductor. At that time, I played in the Academy Orchestra and it was no secret that I harboured ambitions as a conductor, but the resident professor was a little afraid of this young upstart and was reluctant to give me an opportunity. Now, for this nonette, I brought together a group of nine players from the academy. By that time, I was used to leading the rehearsal sessions for chamber groups I was with – and the players asked me to take control over the interpretation… and so I also conducted the performance for the radio broadcast. That is how music followers in Ireland heard of me for the first time.”
Upon graduation at the College of Commerce, Proinnsías was offered a job as a clerk in a confectionery firm. However, to the dismay of his parents, he turned it down. In the end, after seeking advice from professor Brian Boydell of Trinity College, Ó Duinn Sr gave in to his son’s ambition to become a professional musician. Proinnsías made his living by composing and performing chamber music as well as stepping in regularly as a replacement cellist in various orchestras, most notably the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra. Though he enjoyed gaining the experience, Ó Duinn explains “It was a means to an end”. He was biding his time to prove himself as a conductor. In the event, he did not have to wait very long. In 1959 he was invited to play the cello as a replacement in the pit orchestra which accompanied the performance of ‘The golden years’, a musical theatre show based on the life of Percy French.
“These performances were at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin,” Ó Duinn recalls. “The composer was Eric Rogers, a guy from London (who, in 1960, arranged the UK Eurovision entry ‘Looking High, High, High’ for Bryan Johnson – BT), and he conducted it as well. After having been performed with considerable success for several weeks, the musical was supposed to finish at the beginning of the summer season for a revue by a then-famous Irish comedian, Jimmy O’Dea. Jimmy, however, had to cancel the shows because he got seriously ill. To fill the void, the director of the Gaiety Theatre was adamant that the successful musical be continued… but Eric Rogers, who had engagements in London, had to get back. He asked the twelve musicians in the orchestra if anyone could replace him. That was when I raised my hand! He had some doubts, and I do not blame him – I was only eighteen years old. The next morning, I was invited to a meeting with him at which he played me some things on the piano, asking me to comment. Apparently, this convinced him that I was up to the task. A replacement cellist was found and, later that week, I conducted it for the first time while he watched what I was doing. Afterwards, he went to the management to say that he wanted me to do the rest of the shows: “And whatever he wants, he gets”, he added. I was very grateful to him. The musical ran for the whole summer and, mainly thanks to the effective arrangements Rogers did for it, it sounded absolutely right.”
Ó Duinn stayed on at the Gaiety Theatre to conduct two more musicals before being invited by Kevin Roche, head of the Irish broadcaster’s branch of Radio Variety, to do a guest performance with the Symphony Orchestra. At nineteen years of age, and without any formal conducting education, he stood up to lead the orchestra for two symphonies – Schubert’s Fifth and Shostakovich’s First. “I picked these two pieces for two reasons,” Ó Duinn explains. “The first one being a gimmick – Schubert and Shostakovich composed these pieces at nineteen, the same age as me; the other was that these symphonies contrasted very much, allowing me to showcase my versatility in handling a classical orchestra. Of course, in rehearsals, the musicians tested me, but the concert was good. Because of that, the Symphony Orchestra management asked me back for several more guest performances, but I lacked the experience and reputation for more than just the occasional guest performance. I needed to mature and learn, but I was not keen to go back to the conservatory. In the end, in 1961, I was granted a Fellowship by the Irish Arts Council. Largely, this was due to Charles Acton, an influential music critic who had taken an interest in my development since he had heard my first piece of chamber music some years before. I got the fellowship for composition, though I was more interested in conducting. At that point, the Arts Director, Mervyn Wall, spoke the legendary words: “I do not care if you bring a red-headed whore from Ring’s End and take her for a weekend in Galway, you have been granted your fellowship and we hope you use it wisely.”
At the suggestion of Charles Acton, Ó Duinn spent the first half of his six-month fellowship in the Netherlands (1961-62), where he extensively sat in on rehearsals and concerts of several classical orchestras. “One day, in Hilversum, I was in the control room of a radio studio while attending a rehearsal with one of the classical radio orchestras. I agreed with the sound engineer that the playing was lacklustre, but he was adamant that I come back the next day. It was the same orchestra playing, but with another conductor in charge: Bernard Haitink. The transformation was complete! All of a sudden, the orchestra sounded inspired. From that point on, I followed Haitink all around the place, attending more rehearsals with him and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. He had a wonderful way with the orchestra – a very human way. He got what he wanted while being pleasant. While rehearsing, he refrained from doing what many conductors tend to do far too often: stop the orchestra. Watching Haitink, I understood that one of the commandments of an effective conductor is never to use three words if you can use two. It is part of the psychology and psychiatry of an orchestra. A conductor has to feel when to stop and when not to. When Haitink stopped the orchestra, he did not give a lecture, but stuck to pointed remarks. Most of the time, he would just point at a guy who would immediately understand what he meant. Haitink had very good ears for every slight intonation. If the orchestra were a car, Haitink could drive it smoothly with no one being aware of his gear changing. Still, to me, one of the greatest conductors of all time – and one of the people I learnt most from, though he himself would not have known that.”
For the second half of his fellowship, Ó Duinn went to London. He studied and analysed the conducting techniques of Pierre Monteux and Leopold Stokowski, the flamboyant British conductor who spent most of his career in the United States. Ó Duinn: “Later on, in New York, I met him again and got much closer to him, but during my stay in England in ’62, I just sat in and watched what he was doing as a conductor working with an orchestra. What I have always liked about Stokowski was his desire to bring the music to the people. Before the war, he worked on a film score with classical pieces for the movie ‘Fantasia’, in which he shook hands with Mickey Mouse. As a result, he was not asked back to Europe for years. The snobbery in the classical world about light music can be awful. As a conductor, nobody was better at acoustics than Stokowski. He would walk into Carnegie Hall and tell the engineer to slightly move a microphone which was hanging down from the ceiling way above him. He suggested to me doing away with the baton. Once you start the orchestra, you should be very clear, but mainly by working on the music as if it were a painting, creating music while you go along. Holding a baton means you lose the possibility to use both of your hands as expressive pieces of equipment. This big white stick… most of the orchestra players are not even looking at it anyway. As a conductor, I do not want to tower above the musicians. I have an imaginary square box within which I want the performance to be. Orchestra players must be allowed to think and put in parts of their creativity into it, all within my ‘box’, because I am using my hands to tone them down here or there perhaps. With the musicians, the conductor is creating a painting. It is a living thing and we are creating it on the spot. Therefore, there are no two performances the same. Of course, I would not have been able to explain myself in quite the same way in 1962, but my conviction that music should be recreated rather than performed robotically was born while analysing Stokowski and being influenced by his approach.”
Back in Dublin, Proinnsías Ó Duinn took up working regularly as a guest conductor with the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra, as well as the RTÉ Light Orchestra, the second of Raidió Teilifís Éireann’s music ensembles. “I have always loved switching from light music to classical and back, provided the stuff I am working on is of good quality. I did Melody Fair, a series of six half-hour TV programmes, with the Light Orchestra, while doing some radio recordings of lesser known classical pieces with the Symphony Orchestra. The principal conductor of the Symphony Orchestra was slightly jealous of me and only let me get away with low profile work now and then. One of these pieces was Carl Nielsen’s Third Symphony. Unknown to me, a recording of this work was passed on to two representatives of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra who were looking for guest conductors from Europe to work with them in Reykjavik. Because of their connection with Denmark and Nielsen, they picked it up and approached me to do some guest performances. I was delighted, so I went up – and when I got there, it turned out their principal conductor had got sick. As a result, they wanted me to stay for the season. In the end, I stayed for three seasons! Proving myself as a principal conductor was extremely important to me. Moreover, the quality of life in Reykjavik was great, and so was their concert hall. I loved it. From Iceland, I regularly travelled to America, which allowed me to see New York and get closer to Stokowski.”
After his stay in Iceland (1963-65), Ó Duinn, amazingly, became the principal conductor at the National Symphony Orchestra in Ecuador in South America, where he stayed for six years (1965-71): “… And I’m not even an adventurer! At that time, I wanted to conduct and get better at it, no matter if it would have been in China or Alaska. When in New York, I had the opportunity to go on tour in Latin America with a theatre company who performed two musicals. While I was touring, I was able to do some guest conducting here and there – one of these gigs being in Quito, Ecuador. What I was unaware of, though, was that the orchestra did not have a principal conductor at that moment and that there had just been a military coup. The military government were looking for ways to cut budgets; they told the orchestra that it was up to them to fill the conductor vacancy as soon as possible in order to avoid a drastic budget reduction. Now, you have to realise, I went to South America without being able to speak Spanish. I learnt how to count to ten on my way to the first rehearsal in the taxi. At this rehearsal, members of the Board of Directors came down, listened, and offered me the principal conducting job. It was a case of being at the right place at the right moment.”
“Working in Ecuador was wonderful. At that time, Quito was a beautiful place, a city of perpetual spring. The orchestra was not bad – it was as good as the guy on the box, to be honest! What it needed was consistency. My first concert was due to start at 9PM. When I got there at 8.15, the theatre was actually locked. The first orchestra players started arriving at 8.50. They were not used to beginning on time, and because of that, the audience came in late as well. I told the players that, next time, no matter if there is not a single concert-goer in the hall, we start at nine. Now, when we began that concert, there were three people in the auditorium – literally, just three. Some people arriving at the interval thought they were going to hear the first half of the concert. For the second concert, everyone was on time, which led one of the newspaper commentators to remark that there were only two things in Ecuador running on time: airlines and symphony concerts. It turned out the orchestra and I got along with each other very well. Once the consistency was there, musicians from other countries were willing to come and play in Ecuador. A Czechoslovakian clarinettist came in, and an English bassoon player – and the standard improved as a result. Regularly, European soloists came over to work with us. To draw local audiences, I wrote orchestrations to Ecuadorian folk tunes, which went down very well. I think back fondly of my time in Quito. My daughter Antonina was born there. Unfortunately, the political situation in Ecuador in the early 1970s was a little volatile, which was the reason why I decided to leave.”
After a brief stint in Popayán, Colombia, where he led the local chamber orchestra, as well as teaching at the University of Cauca’s Music Department (1971-72), he came back to live in Dublin, working as a freelance conductor for several years, teaming up with orchestras in North America as well as the UK and Ireland. In 1974 he was signed by RTÉ as their vocal advisor and conductor of the RTÉ Chamber Choir and the RTÉ Singers, which allowed him to gain valuable experience as a choral conductor. Staying with the Chamber Choir for four seasons, Ó Duinn was awarded the 1976 Radio & TV Critics’ Prize for his inventive approach to programming. In 1978, when the position of chief conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (as the Light Orchestra had in the meantime been renamed) became vacant, the ensemble’s musicians, together with the broadcaster’s Head of Music, insisted that Ó Duinn take over. In the end, he was appointed and remained at the Concert Orchestra’s helm for an impressive twenty-five years (1978-2003).
“I considered myself very lucky to get this job at the Concert Orchestra,” Ó Duinn comments. “Now I was able to lock my suitcase away and have a job five minutes away from where I lived in Dublin. When I was put in charge of them, the Concert Orchestra was a studio orchestra; music was brought in one door and tapes of recordings were put out through the other… mainly smaller arrangements. It was a typical radio orchestra which played light entertainment music, crossing over into classical music only occasionally to avoid getting in the way of the Symphony Orchestra. They recorded programmes with Irish folk music, and of course jazz and popular music, which they usually did with Noel Kelehan – Eurovision, for example. My ambition was to professionalise the orchestra. I wanted to turn it into a real concert orchestra, a light classical orchestra. The string section was extended, a proper woodwind group was created, and two extra percussionists were brought in. This gave the orchestra more possibilities in terms of sound and repertoire. In the first couple of years, I did not guest conduct anywhere, because it was a full time job to make this happen. Fortunately, the quality of playing improved and the repertoire was extended. While Noel was able to continue doing his repertoire with the orchestra, I did more and more renditions of classical pieces as well as accompanying ballets, operas, and operettas.”
Taking a further step, Proinnsías Ó Duinn, working with Concert Orchestra manager Frank Murphy, succeeded in taking the orchestra out of the studio more and more often. Ó Duinn: “When I took over, the orchestra did no more than two or three public concerts a year. It was such a waste; after all, an orchestra cannot be just a studio orchestra – it is dead. We had to bring the music live to the people, also because studio work was slowly decreasing. What the Symphony Orchestra was doing in their own concert hall in downtown Dublin, we could bring all over the country. Doing concerts, we got the orchestra out of the studio more and more – and, at RTÉ, people in charge realised what a wonderful PR orchestra for radio we actually were. In the end, we were doing thirty-six concerts a year. Nowadays, very little of what the Concert Orchestra does is studio work. We also did tours in the UK and the United States. The America tours of 1987 and 1989 were real highlights. Frank Murphy simply wrote a letter to Columbia Artist Management to see if they were willing to book us – which they were! If I remember well, in 1987 we did sixty-three concerts in seventy-five days, all across the US. Our repertoire was a mixture of light classical music and tasteful arrangements of Irish melodies, which went down extremely well with the Irish communities who turned up in big numbers for the concerts. The reviews were wonderful but, unfortunately, these trips abroad cost RTÉ huge amounts of money, which meant we mainly had to stick to Ireland in the second half of my tenure.”
In his capacity as the Permanent Principal Conductor of the RTÉCO, Proinnsías Ó Duinn represented his country as a musical director at four editions of the annual Nordring International Popular Music Festival, a radio festival for public broadcasters in Northern Europe in which each of the participating countries took part with a forty-five minute music programme. Ó Duinn took part at the festivals in Oslo (1978), Helsinki (1980), Jersey (1981), and Malmö (1982). “It was a very interesting manifestation, because each participating country had to come up with new arrangements especially written for the occasion. The repertoire could be anything from light classical stuff to jazz and popular music. Usually, elements of each country’s heritage were included. We once did a programme around the work of James Joyce, for example. Most of the times, the arrangements for our Irish entry were written by Johnny Tate and Noel Kelehan – and I took over the conducting job from Noel when he felt I would do a better job at it. I loved doing Nordring, mainly because I was looking forward to what other countries came up with. The Finns were best at heavy punchy stuff which got you pinned to the wall. The real ones to watch, though, were the Dutch. They usually did programmes with excellent jazz solo players. Their conductor, Dolf van der Linden, was widely respected and I enjoyed talking to him and learning from his experience. I had a huge respect for this understated guy who knew exactly what he was doing. When I took over at the Concert Orchestra, he and his Metropole Orchestra were my example; they played everything ranging from popular tunes to classical music – and Dolf managed all that, something a classical conductor would never have been able to do.”
With the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Ó Duinn recorded several albums for classical music market leaders Naxos and Marco Polo; moreover, he led the studio recordings for Bill Whelan’s original compositions ‘Seville Suite’ (1992) and ‘Riverdance’ (1994). On top of that, he also conducted the Concert Orchestra for the recording of soundtracks of several TV films and regular films, including, most notably, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ (1998), starring Meryl Streep. Finally, after a quarter of a century, Proinnsías Ó Duinn decided to step down from the box of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra in 2003, but not without being named Conductor Laureate. Ó Duinn: “Since, I have continued feeling involved with the Concert Orchestra, doing performances with them every year. In 2008, I conducted them in Rome for a performance at the Vatican marking the eightieth birthday of Vatican City becoming a state. The strength of the orchestra is the fact that it can play anything, from the major works of Beethoven to Gershwin and the lighter stuff. Today, as in the past, we are often criticised for playing a repertoire which is too light. I always respond by saying that we are the orchestra which never forgets it is playing for the people who are paying their taxes – and our audiences are paying double: they have to pay taxes to maintain the broadcasting service which includes the Concert Orchestra, while also having to pay for their seats for our performances.”
Apart from his involvement with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Proinnsías Ó Duinn was the founder and first musical director of the Opera Theatre Company, Dublin (1984). In 1986, he was appointed to the Board of Directors at the Cork City Opera. Meanwhile, as a composer, Ó Duinn wrote several choral pieces, as well as the soundtrack to TV miniseries ‘Strumpet City’ (1980), and, though much later, a musical comedy based on the life and writings of Edward Lear, entitled ‘Stuff and Nonsense’, which premiered in Dublin’s National Concert Hall in 2001. Explaining why he composed relatively little, Ó Duinn explains: “Listening to other people’s work and analysing it, which is what a conductor is supposed to do, requires a different approach than writing your own work. In other words, conducting consumed too much of my time and energy to allow me to do anything else. For that same reason, I stopped playing the cello, which you have to practice eight hours a day to maintain the technique required. ‘Strumpet City’ was a one-off. The director specifically wanted me to write the music to his series. It was set in Dublin in 1913. I had never done music like that, and I was wondering if I could do it. It actually worked really well and it was an enjoyable experience. As for the Lear musical, I was talked into it by the producer who was enthusing about how great it was going to be. I had to be careful, though, since I did not want to mess about with Lear’s work, but again, it worked well. Unfortunately, I did not get on well with the director, which is why I turned down the offer to do another musical project.”
In 1978, one year after taking over the RTÉCO, Proinnsías Ó Duinn also took on the job of musical director and chief conductor of Our Lady’s Choral Society (OLCS), Dublin’s archdiocesan choir; he still holds the position today. He states: “Back in 1979, I accepted the offer to take over the OLCS, only under the condition that I would take full responsibility at the auditions to be held every three years. When the choir was formed in 1945, it encouraged anyone who wanted to sing to join. There were four hundred singers initially, but not all contributed vocally! Two years before I took over, auditions were held for the first time and that number greatly reduced. There had been a committee of several people taking care of that. I felt, however, that a panel of people assessing the auditions was less effective than one mind who had the responsibility of the sound produced by the choir. After all, if Moses were a committee, the Israelites would still be in the desert of Egypt. I have loved working with the choir. After the initial adjustments, they have been singing extremely well. When formed in 1945, the Society established three oratorios as the cornerstone of the repertoire – Handel’s ‘Messiah’, Verdi’s ‘Requiem’, and Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’. Since then, its repertoire ranges from Charpentier to Stravinsky with many Irish and world premieres. Annually, we perform a concert of Christmas music in the Royal Dublin Society, for which I do all of the orchestrations and choral arrangements. Apart from that, we have been doing performances of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ out in Fishamble Street in Dublin each year on April 13th to commemorate its premiere which was in Ireland, back in 1742. No matter if it is raining or not, the performance takes place. We end up having fun with the audience, exhorting them to sing along with us. The day after, April 14th, the date on which he died, we perform a concert of Handel highlights in Merchants Quay Church in aid of two charities.”
In the 2000s, Proinnsías Ó Duinn has continued guest conducting orchestras in Ireland and beyond. In 2003, he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Contemporary Music Centre (CMC) in Dublin, where he stayed on for two consecutive periods. Since 2002, he has conducted the annual Handel birthday celebrations performance with a 400-piece choir and the Staatskapelle Orchestra in Halle, Germany: “The guys from Germany asked me over because of my work on Handel back in Dublin. From a one-off concert, it has developed into something which goes on annually. We are working with an international choir which is booked up two years in advance. Because of Handel’s connection with Ireland, it is great to be able to recreate this piece in his hometown. As far as conducting is concerned, I will continue as long as I have my ears and my eyes. Nowadays, my working weeks are less intense; Halle is one of the very few foreign things I am doing now. There is this saying about conductors: ‘They are like fishermen – they don’t die, they just smell like that’. Stokowski was still performing when he was ninety. You could nearly see through his fingers, but he still had the ability to make an orchestra respond to music. Make no mistake, conducting is pretty hard work; you have to serve the composer, the orchestra and the audience all at the same time. However, as long as I feel there is this response from the orchestra and as long as the musicians go home happy, I will go on doing it.”
Proinnsías Ó Duinn in the Eurovision Song Contest
Proinnsías Ó Duinn explains: “First of all, before answering your question, I never really did Eurovision. Noel did Eurovision and I never interfered with him in that. It was something tailor-made for him and he did a fine job. I never played any role in the national final here in Ireland. Everything, from selecting the songs, picking the arrangers, going through the arrangements – all of that was Noel’s thing. The guitarists and specialised kit players which were added to the Concert Orchestra for the national final broadcast were hand-picked by him; Noel would have known all these guys. When I was appointed as principal conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra back in 1978, I remember Noel asked to come and see me. He was afraid I would take over the lighter stuff as well because of my history with jazz music and musical theatre. I told him there was no reason for me to do so, because he was doing a good job on that. While he did Eurovision and some other projects, I set about modernising the orchestra as well as taking care of the classical and light classical projects. Noel and I respected one another; we always had a good working relationship. He was a very nice guy and an excellent jazz pianist. He is the only person I have ever seen playing the piano while moving a cigarette from one side of his mouth to another! His arrangements were good too – and Noel knew his trade as a conductor, so there was never any problem.”
Now, back to 1979. In the Irish national final, held at the RTÉ Studios in Dublin, in spite of tough competition from the likes of Tina Reynolds and Johnny Logan, Cathal Dunne had been the runaway winner with his song ‘Happy Man’. As usual, Noel Kelehan conducted the RTÉ Concert Orchestra for the programme. Several days later, Concert Orchestra manager Kevin Roche tapped Proinnsías Ó Duinn on the shoulder in RTÉ’s canteen: “Hey, listen, would you like to go to Jerusalem?” “I did not know what he was talking about”, Ó Duinn remembers. “Well, I had never been to Jerusalem before, so I said: “Sure!” “OK”, Kevin replied, and then he laughed and went off without saying anything further. Coming back two or three days later, he explained to me the concert in Jerusalem was Eurovision. I was astonished! I knew what Eurovision was and I had watched it at home as a matter of interest, but I had never thought about taking part in it myself. The thing was: Noel Kelehan hated flying. The mere thought of having to travel from Dublin all the way to Israel was a nightmare for him. Moreover, he was very nervous about going to Israel – and frankly, he did not want to go there. He was afraid something would happen. At that time, the Troubles in Northern Ireland were going on and Noel never went to Ulster either. I did – I used to work regularly with the BBC orchestra up in Northern Ireland. In my innocence, I used to go everywhere. Of course, I was never silly and always minded where I went, but… I was not nervous. Noel must have told Kevin about his reservations and that is why they thought of me as his replacement to accompany Cathal to Jerusalem – and that is how I did Eurovision.”
Ó Duinn first met Cathal Dunne at the airport in Dublin, waiting to get on the plane to Israel. Given Dunne’s background as a classical pianist, it is no surprise the two got along well. “Cathal turned out to be a very nice guy. He was brilliant, a pianist who wrote his own music. It was not until later, when he left for the United States, that he made a career for himself. He never really made it in Ireland. My second wife (Joan Merrigan – BT) who is a classical singer, worked with him over in the States, but that was many years after Eurovision. I thought the song was OK; as you would expect with such a title, ‘Happy Man’, it was happy and upbeat. There was a bit of a complicated break in the middle before taking off again, which might have been a mortal sin from a popular music point of view – how ‘Eurovision’ the song was is beyond my knowledge. Perhaps, you need to be able to sing along to it in a pub in order to be really successful! In Jerusalem, it turned out to be quite popular among the other delegations. Cathal and I discussed the best approach to the song. I wanted to avoid ramming the button and just go like a machine from beginning to end. We had to make sure to do something with it – build it. In my view, that was what I was there for in Jerusalem.”
For Proinnsías Ó Duinn, it was his first visit to the Holy Land. What does he remember of his stay in Jerusalem? “First of all, the concert hall was very close to the Hilton Hotel where we were staying. Like on other occasions when I was an official representative of RTÉ, such as the Nordring Festival, I made a point of staying in close proximity to the venue. I was focusing on doing my job for Ireland in the best way possible. It was not until returning to Israel on another occasion for a symphony concert that I took the opportunity to stay for some more days to tour around a little. In 1979, however, the Irish delegation did not go on any tours outside Jerusalem. The farthest away from the hotel we strayed was on the Friday evening after sunset, when we had to get to the Arab quarters of Jerusalem to get hot food due to the Jews observing their Sabbath. I did not go to rehearsals of any of the other participants either. I never do that; doing that can put you off in what you are doing yourself. I do not know if the frosty diplomatic relations between Ireland and Israel had anything to do with our delegation not doing any sightseeing during the rehearsal week. I have never been a political animal and would not have been aware of the temperature of official relations between the two countries at that time.”
For ‘Happy Man’, Proinnsías Ó Duinn conducted the orchestra of Yitzhak Graziani. How did he like working with these Israeli musicians? “After the first rehearsal, the guys from their rhythm section came to me and explained how they initially were slightly puzzled by my style of conducting. They said: “When you drop a downbeat, the point of the beat is at the bottom. Most popular conductors have the point of the beat up when dropping a downbeat – so we had to get used to that!” It was an interesting observation and I had never given it a thought before, but it is kind of true… when observing what these popular guys were doing, I noticed they usually flicked up instead of down. Many of them were no professional conductors, but arrangers who did not do much except indicating the beat. It would have been quite complicated for such an orchestra to have to work with fifteen or twenty different conductors, each of them with their own approach to an arrangement. A lot came down to the rhythm guys; they had to translate the wishes of these arranger-conductors who were not really able to indicate clearly what they wanted. I took the conducting job in Jerusalem completely seriously. There is no fundamental difference between conducting light music and classical music. Any conductor has to understand the medium – he has to change clothes while he travels. A pop song requires a pop approach. I never look at different genres of music in terms of one type being more valuable than the other. In my point of view, the only difference which counts, in whichever genre, is between what is good and bad.”
The Irish delegation travelled back to Dublin with a satisfactory fifth place in the pocket. Ó Duinn: “It was not a bad result… we have had much worse than that – and much better as well, of course. When I came back, my impression was that I had never before worked so little for so long! You had to be there on time for each rehearsal, so you made sure you were well on time. After waiting for one’s turn, you were asked to do your rehearsal. I was well prepared and the orchestra consisted of professionals who were able to follow what I was doing very quickly. So we did a run-through of it, and then a second run-through, all of which would have taken ten minutes… well, let us say, twelve minutes, explaining one or two things to the orchestra – and that was all that had to be done that day. To allow all delegations their rehearsing time, a tight schedule was absolutely necessary. In spite of the long hours of leisure time, I was satisfied with what we did in Jerusalem. As always, my satisfaction came from trying to make the music sound the best I can in the given circumstances, while allowing my fellow artists to feel comfortable and relaxed throughout the experience. I think I achieved that, and that was all I could influence. After that, on a show like Eurovision, one is at the mercy of sound engineers… and, in Jerusalem, the technicians were both discreet and good at their job. When listening to the television recording of Cathal’s Eurovision performance, you can clearly hear the quieter woodwind phrases, for example. In a show like the Eurovision Song Contest, it is an enormous challenge for the engineers to get the sound right with so many different combinations of instruments, and so many demands with each act. The recording of the 1979 Contest proves the Israeli sound technicians did a wonderful job.”
“Many years later, while in Germany conducting Handel’s ‘Messiah’ with the Halle Staatskapelle Orchestra, one of the German musicians came to me and said: “Guess what I found?” And what he showed me was a video on the internet of me doing Eurovision. These musicians did not think that I could have done that. Most people have the impression that if you do the one, you cannot do the other. Many respectable musicians, like Dolf van der Linden and Noel Kelehan, specialised in doing light music or working on Eurovision arrangements – and I did it just once. In Ireland, there were no jokes made about it that I am aware of. Because, when I came back, I did Shostakovich and Mahler symphonies. I have never felt any reservations about light entertainment music. The important thing is to do it well – and in Israel, the orchestra collaborated very well. It is a pity that, still today, so many people in the classical music world fail to understand that music can have its value in any genre.”
It is not entirely true that Proinnsías Ó Duinn was involved in the Eurovision Song Contest only in 1979. Though Noel Kelehan was in charge of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra for the various editions of the Contest which were held in Ireland between 1981 and 1995, Ó Duinn jumped in on one occasion – in 1995, when he conducted the so-called interval act, the piece of music performed while waiting for the jury votes to be cast. In 1995, after the clamorous success of the 1994 act ‘Riverdance’, RTÉ decided to commission classical composer Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (1950-2018) to write a suitable piece of music. Ó Súilleabháin came up with ‘Lumen’, an intriguing crossover of modern classical music with Celtic overtones, interpreted by a music group featuring, amongst others, the voices of Brian Kennedy and the Benedictine monks of Glenstal Abbey, backed up by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
Asked about why he conducted ‘Lumen’ instead of Noel Kelehan, Proinnsías Ó Duinn says: “The piece was kind of ethereal and there was no question about that, Noel did not want to do it. At that point, I was asked to jump in. Noel was quite happy to leave it to me. “You go down and talk to those monks”, is what he said. You see, there was never any jealousy or competition involved at all between Noel and myself. After ‘Riverdance’, ‘Lumen’ provided a good contrast, showing a different side of Ireland. It was not the first time I teamed up with Micheál Ó Súillebháin – over the years, I conducted most of his works where an orchestra was involved. Micheál developed his own distinctive style, which he called ‘ethnic jazz’. ‘Lumen’ was a clever piece, though not as commercial as ‘Riverdance’. Noel conducted ‘Riverdance’ in the Eurovision Song Contest, while I did the original studio recording of it with the Concert Orchestra which was released on CD. Bill Whelan, the composer of ‘Riverdance’, was making a living writing orchestrations here and there – and he was so lucky that ‘Riverdance’ came along. It was the big hit of Eurovision and it established Bill’s name once and for all. He was in the right position to take advantage of it, just like ABBA when they won it. The piece was expanded to be a stage show which conquered the world. Everyone has forgotten about the 1994 Eurovision winner, but they still know about ‘Riverdance’. I consider Bill a Eurovision winner. He was given the opportunity to showcase his music to a large audience and capitalised on it.”
When speaking about later developments in the Eurovision Song Contest, more specifically the abandonment of the orchestra as an integral part of the programme, Ó Duinn chooses his words carefully: “I do not want to insult anybody, but, to me, the musical content in Eurovision has become less important than the visual element – and I do not like that. I can understand why producers chose to discontinue the involvement of an orchestra; maintaining an orchestra is very expensive and many broadcasters did away with their radio orchestras a long time ago. Still, the Eurovision Song Contest of the old days, with the orchestra, created a wholly different dynamic than today with just someone pushing the button of the CD player. With a backing tape, the performance is not a creation. Instead, artists are trying to repeat something on stage – in this case, the studio recording. I am more interested in interpreting, in recreating music. Perhaps that is also why Ireland has not done that well in Eurovision since the late 1990s. Irish music has always been about melody and lyrics – that is what the Irish are good at, good melodies with universally appealing lyrics. Now, a melody always benefits from live accompaniment. Machines are OK for producing rhythm, but if you want a heart, you will not find it in a machine. If you want a phrase to bend and to expand, you have to have an orchestra there."
Other artists on Proinnsías Ó Duinn