Irish Times, May 15, 2000

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Irish Times

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Irish-America comes out in force for
night of island arts

The Irish Times

Say what you like about the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts — and some have criticised it, notably the travel writer Jan Morris, who called it "a cross between a Nazi exhibition and a more than usually ambitious hairdresser" — the scale of the place is impressive.

The foyer is dominated by a gargantuan bust of Kennedy and strung with Swedish chandeliers. The complex has four auditoriums, including a 2,340-seat concert hall, a 2,300-seat Opera House, the 1,110-seat Eisenhower Theatre, workshop spaces, exhibition halls, a film institute and several cavernous restaurants.

To use it as a venue for an Irish-American arts festival is to display Celtic Tiger confidence at its most ebullient; and at the opening gala concert on Saturday night the great and the good of the Irish-American arts community duly showed up in force.

The President, Mrs McAleese, was there, as was the US Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, the Minister for Arts and Heritage, Ms de Valera, the Northern Ireland Minister, Mr George Howarth, and former US ambassador to Ireland Mrs Jean Kennedy Smith, who dreamed up the project in the first place.

"Island: Arts from Ireland" will run for two weeks at the Kennedy Centre, and aims to embrace all aspects of Irish cultural life from literature — with readings by Seamus Heaney, John McGahern, Paul Durcan and Frank McCourt — to film. There will be showings of movies as diverse as Cathal Black's Korea and Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy. In visual arts, Tony O'Malley's An Irish Vision will be shown at The Phillips Collection on Q Street until July, while visitors to the Kennedy Centre can see the private collection of US lawyer Mr Brian P. Burns, with works by William John Leech, Sir John Lavery, Jack B. Yeats and Roderic O'Conor.

Theatre will be represented by Stewart Parker's Pentecost, Marina Carr's On Raftery's Hill and Donal Kelly's Catalpa, while the Irish Chamber Orchestra will give the world premiere of Riverdance composer Bill Whelan's new work, Inishlaken.

Like most gala concerts, Saturday night's was a mixed bag, presumably intended more as a celebration than a serious slice of state-of-the-art traditional music.

It began auspiciously enough when a huge video screen was lowered in front of the stage to show footage of John F. Kennedy's visit to Galway in 1963.

"Hands up," demanded the President, "if you have relatives in America that you can own up to."

The camera panned over the cloth-capped black-and-white crowd; slowly, hand after hesitant hand was raised.

It would have taken a heart of stone not to be moved by this gloriously simple reminder of the Irish-American connection, and the clip was greeted with understandable warmth.

Musically, the evening, directed by the indefatigable Donal Lunny, was supposed to make connections of a similar kind, and at its best — in superb performances from accordionist Sharon Shannon, singer and bodhran player Liam O Maonlai, blues guitarist Steve Earle and bluegrass player Ricky Skaggs — it exuded energy and creativity.

At its worst — a bafflingly self-indulgent contribution from Elvis Costello, and a burst of token Riverdancing — well, there are worse things in the world than mild embarrassment.

Certainly the punters, who had forked out anywhere between $30 and $100 for tickets, left the Kennedy Centre smiling. "Wouldn't it," one dinnerjacketed man declared, "make you want to rush into the Irish section of the record shop, and just say: `gimme all you got'?"

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The Irish Times, May 15, 2000

The Irish Times reviews the Island: Arts from Ireland concert, May 13, 2000, Kennedy Centre Opera House, Washington, DC.


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