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'This Is Ireland' goes beyond shamrocks and green beer

'This Is Ireland' at UCLA's Royce Hall is honoring St. Patrick's Day with a festival that includes history lessons, literary readings, traditional dances and more.

March 17, 2011|By Katherine Tulich, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Conductor and composer Eimear Noone, shown taking a break from rehearsing with a choir, doing pieces for the "This is Ireland" program at the Cochran Avenue Baptist Church,
Conductor and composer Eimear Noone, shown taking a break from rehearsing… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

It's Monday rehearsal night for the Hollywood Choir at the Cochran Avenue Baptist Church in mid-city L.A., but instead of a rousing gospel tune, the 65-member choir is dissecting the intervals and harmonies of a lilting arrangement of "Danny Boy." It is one of three songs (including a Gaelic version of the Emerald Isle's national anthem) they will be performing at Thursday's "This Is Ireland" concert at UCLA's Royce Hall.

"A gospel choir singing Irish songs does sound surprising," says the choir's buoyant leader Blinky Williams, laughing. "At first we didn't think an African American choir would have much in common with anything Irish, but once you learn more about their history and their music we realized there was a lot we could relate to."

For the show's creator, Irish born composer-conductor Eimear Noone, it's that spirit of connection with her adopted city of Los Angeles that inspired the creation of the concert that she hopes will become an annual St. Patrick's Day event for Los Angeles. With the demise of the annual downtown St Patrick's Day parade last year due to budget cuts, Noone wanted to find a new way to celebrate the Irish holiday.

"There is so much marketing around this time — green decorations, shamrocks and beer — but I wondered if anyone really knew what the day represented to the Irish," she says. "I wanted an experience that shows our story and our culture. I hope it might redefine what people know as St. Patrick's Day."

The evening will be a collection of all things Irish including history lessons and literary readings from the country's most celebrated poets, traditional Irish dances, a celebration of film and music incorporating classical repertoire, traditional folk songs and even the country's more famous rock exports like Thin Lizzy and U2. "We wanted to cover everything. We even have a section devoted to Irish insults," says Noone, who will co-present as well as conduct the evening's 40-piece orchestra.

High caliber Irish talent was eager to jump aboard. Lyric soprano Celine Byrne is flying in from Ireland, joining Boston-based opera baritone Sam McElroy and locally based Irish-born actors Roma Downey and Pierce Brosnan.

"I think it was a pincer movement on the resident Irish man," says Brosnan, laughing, on the phone from his Malibu home. "For me, it was a no-brainer to be a part of this evening. I don't think there has been anything like this done before."

For Brosnan, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1981, the day still holds nostalgic meaning. "St Patrick's Day has a certain romantic memory of Ireland," he says. "It's a celebration of being Irish and it's a wonderful day of unity for those of Irish descent worldwide."

Brosnan will be part of the evening's tribute to their world renowned national Abbey Theatre, which incubated many of Ireland's great playwrights and actors. He will be reciting W.B. Yeats' "Easter, 1916", a poem that recounts the historic events of the Easter Rising against the British.

"It's a great historic piece and weaves well into the tapestry of the evening," says Brosnan, who will read from a first edition copy signed by the poet. It also represents a return to the stage in some ways for the internationally known film star. "It's where I started and how I trained as an actor, but I haven't performed on stage for many years," he says. "To have a chance to do it in such a theatrical form with an orchestra and a piece of literature so poignant will be a great experience."

For Downey, the production is a chance for the Irish community to come together. "I'm excited that I can bring my kids and can expose them to our heritage," she says. The "Touched by an Angel" star will read from the works of the celebrated Nobel Prize-winning contemporary poet Seamus Heaney, who grew up in Downey's hometown of Derry in Northern Ireland.

"I think this night will not only appeal to anyone of Irish descent but I think it will be a chance for everyone to awaken their inner Celt," she says.

calendar@latimes.com

'This Is Ireland'

Where: UCLA's Royce Hall, 340 Royce Drive, L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Price: Tickets are $38 to $88

Info: http://www.uclalive.org

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