Choral Group Anúna Return North

The incredible Irish choral group travel North to their spiritual home for two concerts in Newry and Belfast this week

There have been many important milestones in the lifetime of Anúna, the elite chamber choir founded by composer Michael McGlynn over a quarter of a century ago in Dublin, and still based in the city.

This year, there is another: for the first time in its illustrious history, a majority of Anúna’s hand-picked singers hail from Northern Ireland. McGlynn says this is far from being a statistical aberration.

‘It’s not coincidental at all, it’s deliberate. We’ve been travelling north since about 1991, and at times when others didn’t go, we went. Audiences in the north appreciated what we did in a different way. For the first time we had an audience that understood what we were doing.’

What Anúna do is undoubtedly different, and has been described by one commentator as ‘legitimate folklore that weaves religious and secular threads into an enchanting sonic tapestry'.

McGlynn himself writes and arranges all of the pieces performed by the group, and despite the music being strongly Celtic in character, he is frustrated that Anúna remain prophets without honour or recognition in their own country.

‘Choral music – singing in parts – is not within the Irish tradition at all in the south. It’s always been a single-line tradition,’ he comments. ‘It’s not seen as something that everybody does, and is pretty much ignored by the media unless it’s a competition.

‘I created Anúna in an atmosphere where it shouldn’t really have existed. I couldn’t understand, and still today it eludes me, why in a country where there’s so many amazing voices, there is so little emphasis put on choral music.’

In the North, he says, it’s different. 'You go north and people say, ‘We know what this is. This is part of the education system we have". Kids sing in choirs, choral music is seen as a normal musical pursuit.’

Now, two decades later, McGlynn has singers standing in front of him in the current Anúna line-up who were fascinated young observers of those early Northern Irish concerts.

‘In the case of our Northern singers, most of them would have seen us first when they were small kids. There are stories from so many of them, saying that they were sitting at the back of Clonard Monastery in 1993, when we were there and they were only schoolkids.’

McGlynn also points to the advanced technical ability of the Northern Irish singers as a key factor in their usefulness to an ensemble where the standards of performance are consistently excellent – there is no room for passengers.

‘We found that they were coming in able to read music, having sung in choirs, and they weren’t afraid of doing hard work. The problem in the South is that because choral singing is not seen as a normal educational pursuit, they don’t know how to do the basics.

‘So reading here is really at a very, very low level, and it’s rare we take a Southern singer now. So in addition to the Northerners we have five Americans in the group, one fabulous Sicilian soprano, one from the Netherlands, and one or two English singers as well.’

The perception of Anúna in the South of Ireland is, says McGlynn, further compromised by the group’s involvement in soundtracking a show which subsequently exploded into a global artistic phenomenon.

‘The association with us in Ireland is, or was, so tied in with Riverdance, we initially got a huge exposure in 1994 with that. And then we left it, and suddenly our name was just nothing. We couldn’t get on a show.

‘It came home very forcefully to me a couple of years ago, when we were 25-years old. I rang every single journalist and show in the media down here [in Dublin], and I couldn’t get anyone to even do an interview or a photograph, or appear on telly. Nobody was interested. The problem is in Ireland you can get tarred very quickly.’

The irony is that Anúna’s own music has little in common with that of Riverdance, and is, says McGlynn, very much of the ensemble’s own making. ‘Because we have created a whole new tradition of our own, we’re utterly unlike English choirs. We are very much a creation of this island, of the Irish psyche and the Irish culture.’

Despite that marked strain of local specificity, or perhaps because of it, Anúna’s music has a much greater following internationally than it does in Ireland itself. The choir accordingly tours a lot, and will shortly embark on a string of dates in Japan, Belgium and the Netherlands, taking them up to Christmas 2014.

‘As far as I’m concerned, you don’t need to be Irish to be Irish,’ is how McGlynn explains the ease with which the Anúna style crosses nationalities and continents. ‘In the Netherlands, for instance, we pack out every single venue we go to. When we go to Japan the halls will all be full, and when we go to America it’s full houses the whole way.’

And wherever the venue, adds McGlynn, whatever the country, audiences unite in their responses to the particular brand of Irish music, and the particular type of emotional experience, which his singers are presenting.

‘There must be something in the essence of Anúna that speaks to the core of humanity, to the core of people. It’s extremely gratifying to get emails from people all over the world, saying how much the music has meant to them.

‘For me, when you come and see a choral ensemble, you come and experience the most beautiful instrument in the world, the sound of human voices singing together. That sound is like an infection. It’s an obsessive thing, and it never goes away.’

In more than a passing nod of recognition to the area which currently supplies so many of its singers, Anúna will commence their forthcoming tour with two special concerts for Northern Irish audiences – at St Colman's College, Newry, and Clonard Monastery in Belfast, on September 25 and 26. For McGlynn, these dates have particular significance.

‘You know, it’s like coming home in some ways. In Japan, our music is classified as "healing music". I think from the point of view of Anúna’s presence in Northern Ireland, that’s what its purpose is, and it has never been anything else.

‘You see, the sound that comes out of our mouths we would describe as being completely human, unaffected and honest. We pride vocal honesty more than anything else, with no mannerisms and no artifice.

'The aim is actually to break down the divide between the audience and the choir. And I think that in Northern Ireland in particular that perception is much greater, and appreciated in a way that’s different to other places.’

Tickets to Anúna's forthcoming Northern Irish concerts are available via their official website.