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Sunday 21 September 2014

Sister act: talented siblings join forces to create some-Thing special

Published 27/01/2013 | 06:00

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Take one determined musician, an elder sister who, like herself, is a graduate of a prestigious New York music school, and what do you get? A stunning debut album, that's what: one that so impressed that it was named CD of the Week on Lorcan Murray's Weekend Drive on RTÉ Lyric FM.

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Ailbhe McDonagh, who likes to surf and ski in her spare time, is the musician in question, a cellist from Malahide. Her sister Orla, a pianist, went off to Juilliard; Ailbhe followed her, to take her Master's at Eastman School of Music after graduating from the Royal Irish Academy, where she now teaches.

Orla is back in Ireland, too, and together they recorded It's A Cello Thing with Ciarán Byrne at Cauldron Studios in Dublin.

With the kind of determination that took her into adventure sports, Ailbhe wanted to fulfil an ambition to put a selection of her favourite pieces on disc. They're 13 engaging cello encores. Saint-Saëns is well represented with 'The Swan' from his Carnival of the Animals, and his Allegro Appassionato. Fauré's hauntingly beautiful Après un Rêve is there, as is Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, given new life with a slightly sprightlier tempo than we might be used to.

Ailbhe's is undoubtedly an eclectic selection. Familiar favourites like the 'Méditation' from Massenet's Thaïs sit alongside music from Dutch composer Daniel van Goens and a Hungarian Rhapsody that isn't by Liszt, but by a cellist whom he greatly admired. David Popper, from Prague, who died in 1913, was one of the last of the greats to play the instrument in the baroque style, without an endpin, using his legs to hold the cello in position.

With the CD safely in the can (and available from iTunes and other online retailers, as well as www.ailbhemcdonagh.com), there's been plenty of scope to develop her career as a performer.

I first met Ailbhe when she played on The Hamilton Scores with her regular collaborator, the violinist Lynda O'Connor, at the Tall Ships Festival on the Dublin quays last August. The vivacity of their music-making lit up our studio marquee and excited a sizeable live audience.

Now the two have joined forces with Orla to form a classical group, the Belisama Trio, and that, along with Trio Elatha, which fuses classical and traditional, is where Ailbhe is channelling her energies now. Trio Elatha is off to Switzerland next month; the Belisama Trio – the names come from Celtic mythology – will be playing at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival in Bantry in July.

Typically, the programme will be wide-ranging, featuring Dvorák, an Arvo Pärt interpretation of Mozart, and music by a female French composer, Lili Boulanger. It's a Cello, and a Piano, and a Violin Thing now.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ Lyric FM from 10am each Saturday.

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