Entertainment Music

Saturday 24 August 2019

20 years of lyric: Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and tales from the road

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Salute: Michael Comyn launched lyric fm 20 years ago next week
Salute: Michael Comyn launched lyric fm 20 years ago next week

George Hamilton

There's a very good reason this year to bring out the May Day bunting. It was on Saturday May 1, 1999, that RTÉ lyric fm took to the air. Next Wednesday evening the National Concert Hall in Dublin will salute its 20th birthday.

For some years there had been a daily serving of classical music on a waveband called FM3, which shared airspace with Raidió na Gaeltachta.

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When RnaG went full-time, out of the chrysalis that was FM3 flew the butterfly that is lyric fm.

As a music nut, I was delighted. As someone who'd cut his teeth in a decade of radio broadcasting, I'd have loved to have been involved. Commitments decreed otherwise.

Michael Comyn launched the station at noon that Saturday. As the weeks rolled by, Liz Nolan, Niall Carroll and Paul Herriott became a regular part of daily life. I was happy, listening in.

Then, one September night in 2003, I found myself in Moscow for a football match.

Those were the days when the tech gadgets we take for granted were a lot less user-friendly than they are now.

Getting online involved sitting in front of a frozen computer screen while the phone noisily dialled up a connection.

Mobiles searching for a signal would make a similar sound when they were anywhere near a broadcast microphone. They were strictly banned from the commentary box.

After the game, in the back of an elderly taxi with dodgy springs, making uncertain progress through the poorly paved, dimly lit streets of suburban Moscow, I fired up my mobile.

There was a voicemail from an unexpected caller. "This is Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, new head of lyric fm. Would you mind giving me a call?"

Séamus Crimmins, who'd sent the good ship lyric down the slipway in 1999, had moved to the Arts Council. Aodán, on board since the launch, was now at the helm.

He had a proposal. Would I fancy presenting a Saturday morning show, 90 minutes long, just like a football match, playing music I liked and talking about where I'd been on my travels?

And so The Hamilton Scores was born. It was my first producer, Sinéad Wylde, who hit the back of the net with that title. Ninety minutes became two hours - the football game went to extra time. Eventually it settled at 180 minutes - the equivalent of a two-legged tie.

A working lifetime involved in top-line sport expanded to include top-line music as well.

This happy combination has brought amazing opportunities to broadcast the show from sporting locations, and not just Twickenham or Murrayfield, or the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.

I was live from a building in Budapest that, GPO-like, still bears bullet marks, in its case from the Hungarian revolution of 1956.

Then there was the sunny morning in a gorgeous garden in Nuremberg, where the studio was on the ground floor of a converted villa. The windows were open, and if I took off my headphones, I could hear birdsong as the music played.

After a while, I noticed the birds didn't seem to be singing when I was live and the red light was on. From the other side of the glass came the explanation. "The birds aren't singing," the studio manager smiled, "because we put red lights in the trees!"

Then there was the sound engineer in Belgrade who enthusiastically shared stories of what life was like as the former Yugoslavia was disintegrating.

You can only imagine how strange it must seem to these professionals to have a presenter sitting there talking every so often, then listening to music that's coming from our studio in Limerick.Whether Paris or Poznań, Rome or Rio, Switzerland or South Africa, there's been a serving of Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, and the rest with a side dish of tales from the road.

And that's just been mornings, on a Saturday or a Sunday. Right across the week, lyric makes life sound better.

It's the place, as Séamus Crimmins said at its launch, where great music lives.

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