City of Culture 2013 Preview

Phil Coulter, Stephen Rea and The Voice's Ben Kelly get the cultural ball rolling

Questions have been swirling around Derry~Londonderry’s year as City of Culture since the ‘Yes’ vote in July 2010. What’s going to be in the programme? How can I get involved? Is it really for me?

The anticipation and excitement of the audience, in the wonderful faded grandeur of St Columb’s hall, is therefore palpable before the launch of the City of Culture 2013 preview. This is the moment the answers begin.

Ben Kelly, one of the stars of The Voice, resplendent in powder blue jacket and white trainers, sings a self-penned number ‘Home’, written specially for the City of Culture year. The sentiment and lyrics border on overripe Camembert, but it strikes the perfect tone. Youthful, exuberant, talented, from Derry~Londonderry.

The politicians, funders and sponsors do their usual turns, talking economic and social development, showcasing to an international audience, telling a new story, changing perceptions, leaving a lasting legacy, yadda yadda… But with DCAL core funding of £12 million and a capital fund of similar scale, you can’t say that central government hasn’t put its money where its mouth is.

Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín is particularly strong on how the City of Culture will ‘give our creative people the opportunity to shine’. The announcement of a £200,000 fund for new commissions from artists is welcome news in this regard.

And what of the Preview Programme? Well, it’s a mix of some heavyweight ‘community’ projects and commissioned work. The Music Promise, which pledges to make inspiring music learning experiences available to every child, aged three to eight, is a huge commitment to music learning, and one which should leave a legacy for generations to come.

It’s hard not to be touched by the appearance of P3 classes from Long Tower and Fountain primary schools on stage, giving a demonstration of music lessons in action.

Equally ambitious is the Portrait of a City project, which aims to build up a ‘digital memory-bank’, providing digital skills to young and old and the opportunity for citizens to explore and celebrate Derry~Londonderry’s heritage through photography, audio and film.

The murals above the stage highlight how Colmcille, or St Columba, as Derry’s founding father, is perhaps the most famous individual associated with the city. Return of Colmcille will be a huge public pageant, written by award-winning author and screenwriter, Frank Cottrell-Boyce

According to Cottrell-Boyce: ‘Astounding stories began to grow up around the brilliant, contradictory figure of Colmcille long before he died. Return of Colmcille imagines one of the great turning points in his life when – distraught because of the death of thousands of men in the Battle of the Books – he flees into exile.’

Stephen Rea introduces the return of Field Day, the seminal theatre company he co-founded with playwright Brian Friel in 1980. Rea will direct a new play by up-and-coming Antrim writer Clare Dwyer-Hogg, and a world premiere from writer Sam Shepherd is also in the pipeline.

Another contemporary artist of international renown is Hofesh Schecter, whose Political Mother: Derry~Londonderry UnCut performance will involve more than 30 musicians and 16 dancers, as well as local artists and dance groups. Safe to predict Schecter's pulsating work will be one of the highlights of 2013.

New commissions include At Sixes and Sevens, a cantata to mark the relationship between Derry~Londonderry and the City of London, written by Pulitzer prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon and composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. The premiere will happen simultaneously in the Guildhalls in London and Derry~Londonderry, performed by Camerata Ireland and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The unique nature of 2013 and Derry~Londonderry’s myriad identities are evidenced by the inclusion of the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, from August 11 to 18, the first time the festival of Irish culture has strayed north of the border, and the Turner Prize, the UK’s contemporary art bad boy, the first time it has left England.

A tie-up with Hollyoaks doesn’t thrill this reviewer too much, no longer having the joy of being an early evening TV viewer, but I can see the logic behind putting the city on a national platform and tapping into younger audiences.

If at times the launch seems an unusual mix of world-class artistic fare and grassroots community engagement, then that is only a reflection of the challenge that City of Culture has set itself. Just because ‘there’s something for everyone’ in the programme, doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘everyone’ will attend or get involved. Participation is the watchword here.

And if the launch lasts a tad too long, well, perhaps that is forgivable with so much to cram in and an understandable desire to give all contributors their moment in the limelight.

Phil Coulter rounds things off with a rendition of 'The Town I Loved So Well', a song which coincidentally celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2013. It's possibly a good thing that the harking back to the Troubles feels anachronistic. In many respects the ‘brand-new day’ that Coulter prays for in the song’s final verse is already here. Derry~Londonderry is already a very different place.

In the next few months, the city will see the Olympic Torch, the first major concert at Ebrington, Peace One Day, the North Atlantic Fiddle Festival, and the arrival of the Clipper Around The World yacht race. Today’s preview is a good indicator of the likely depth and variety of City of Culture's full programme. Most excitingly, it’s just the beginning, there’s a heck of a lot more to come.