Monday 23 April 2018

Radio: No news is good news for festive radio pleasure

Frank Sinatra: woven deep into the fabric of things
Frank Sinatra: woven deep into the fabric of things
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

I'm one of those old grumps who kind of hates Christmas, but one undeniably excellent thing about the season is that it forces everyone to take a break, from everything they can manage. In my case, as a member of the fourth estate, that means stepping back from knowing what's going on in the world.

It all gets a bit exhausting, doesn't it, this constant 24-7 awareness of news and events and The State of the World. Obviously that awareness is part of the job normally, but this Christmas I made a decision: to avoid, as much as possible, all current-affairs radio. (I even switched off those end-of-year reviews - that's just more of the same, really.)

There was still a fair amount of news and current affairs on the air over Christmas, believe it or not, but much less than usual. Which meant a corresponding increase in alternative radio: relaxing and evocative music, interesting documentary, art, beauty, magic.

So, for instance, on Christmas Day we had A Very Merry Mooney Tunes (RTÉ Radio 1, 1.15pm). Now in its seventh year running, this brings Derek Mooney out of his comfort zone to some extent, as he presents a show from the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre (recorded a few weeks ago), in which the RTÉ Concert Orchestra plays a selection of tunes nominated by listeners to the man's self-titled show.

For the 2015 iteration, A Very Merry Mooney Tunes focused on music from movies and musicals, and it was all rather lovely. Sweet without being sentimental, cockle-warming without being schmaltzy, the perfect way to soundtrack the afternoon of the big day.

Lyric, of course, is the home of wonderful music, year round. I often feel guilty about not including it in this column more often, but you know how it goes: those blasted current affairs keep shouting loudly and insisting to be noticed…

On a purely cultural level, Lyric is as important, in my view, as any other television or radio station in the country, and considerably more so than the majority. (We won't mention any commercial stations by name, to save embarrassment.)

Ever inventive and ambitious, with an admirable dedication to public service, the station is very valuable and well worth supporting. And I don't give a damn what it costs, or how many people are tuning in; not everything should be about money.

This Christmas Day, Lyric presented three absolutely sumptuous music programmes, beginning with a special festive edition of their regular show Gloria (8am), Tim Thurston's tour (de force) through a millennium of sacred music. Gregorian chant, choral masterpieces, liturgical epics inspired by faith and devotion: I'm as atheist as it gets, but if this stuff doesn't stir the soul, I think you'd better check for a pulse.

The same presenter, later that day, was at the helm for Bach Cantatas at Christmas (6pm). The concert was performed by the prestigious Baroque Ensemble Lautten Compagney based in Berlin, from the German National Museum in Nuremberg.

And again, as with Gloria, this was music so sublime that it's physically impossible not to experience a profound response. Seriously: regardless of what you normally listen to (Cannibal Corpse and Skrillex, in my case), if Bach doesn't lift you to a transport of delight and bring you to where the angels reside, you're dead inside. You don't have to be religious to know something heavenly when you hear it.

There's something infinitely fascinating about genius anyway, in whatever artistic form; there's always something magical about that "wow" moment when you truly realise just how immense a talent is being expressed. Beautiful Lofty Things (Radio 1, Christmas Day, 4pm) paid homage to one of our own artistic geniuses, WB Yeats, through an evening of music and poetry.

Presented by academic Roy Foster and recorded live at the National Concert Hall in September, they had assembled a pretty impressive cast: the likes of Iarla Ó Lionáird, Martin Hayes and Bill Whelan from the musical side, and folks like John Montague, Eavan Boland and John Banville representing the writers.

Was it great? Of course it was - this was Yeats, at Christmas time. What more do you want?

Frank Sinatra, although not quite on the Yeats level of genius, was another giant of 20th century culture and life. Great Lives (BBC Radio 4, Christmas Day 12.30am) saw Colin Murray paying tribute to the Chairman of the Board, whom he described, variously, as aggressive, very masculine, utterly competitive… and, most importantly, supremely talented.

For me, though, the real - ahem - kick in the head was when Murray pinpointed Sinatra's omnipresence in our culture. And that's right, I think: it's hard to imagine a world without Old Blue Eyes. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a Christmas without him as part of the musical accompaniment.

He's woven deep into the fabric of things now, is old Frankie, and probably always will be. Ain't that a pleasant kick to the head.

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