THE BLOG

UK City of Culture: A Retrospective

15/01/2014 14:15 GMT | Updated 17/03/2014 09:59 GMT

So my year as 'Musician In Residence' in Derry-Londonderry, the UK City of Culture has come to an end. I have mixed feelings. My final concert on 7th December was a successful affair.... I'm told. I spent most of the evening in the corner of the room looking down on the whole thing. Detached. I can't remember having a whole year's build up to a gig before. But that's what I had, and with it an undue amount of pressure. Looking around I saw happy faces, audiences on their feet applauding, pats on backs. I was impressed with what I saw, but can't remember how it got put together.

Looking back to my first evening last February, it was clear that things were going to be 'different'! I was sitting in a restaurant when in walked John Hume, the Nobel Peace Prize winner. A ubiquitous figure these days in the shops and restaurants of Derry. Looking at my beard he said, 'did you forget your razor'? And after criticising my dining partners waist line he shuffled off to his seat. What a debut for an Englishman finding his feet.

Though I have enormously enjoyed my year, things have not always been plain sailing. Trying to get my end of year concert together was at times a real struggle. Not only from the compositional standard I set myself, but the logistics of getting a production off the ground in a city with very different rules. It may be part of the UK and only a small flight away but the difference in approach has always given me great amusement. I've been on stage at times with dozens of people and been the only person not knowing what's going on. Despite no announcement, no meeting called or no itinerary printed.. ..

I suppose it's borne from everyone pretty much knowing each other here. If you want something done, you ask so-and-so who knows so-and-so who can get it sorted. And in the main the results are the same, but utterly baffling to a feather pillowed southerner. There is an unspoken language I still have no handle on. Yet I would have it no other way

So, sitting on the runway at Derry Airport bound for home, I mused on how I'd survived the year. So what kept me coming back? Well I suppose that would be that great Derry currency: friendliness.

I'd experienced it that day in the queue for the sandwich shop for lunch. I'd just received a crystal plaque as a token of friendship from Hendersons, the local music shop, and wanted to share it with someone, like a little boy home from school with a painting. I knew that it would be perfectly normal in this conversation- driven community to talk to the two elderly women with me in line. Five minutes later we were best of friends. Normal, everyday occurrence here. As natural as foot-staring on the streets of London.

Then there's the 'crew' I acquired who kept me smiling through the darker times as I travelled on the Airporter Bus from Belfast to Derry. 'Fashion Man' Joe Carlin, a one man crusade for fashion in Derry and a witty and driven devotee of the city. He's a truly brave young man - anyone who walks the streets of this city with full eye make up is brave, believe me! And then there's Katrina Gormley, the 'Queen of Derry'. Glamour incarnate, with an infectious laugh and superbly creative with a crochet needle! I have a custom made tie as testament to that which I wear on stage. Mark Patterson, the razor sharp and sharply intelligent radio presenter from Radio Foyle has also been so very kind and supportive. From great chat on his radio show through to his incredible cooking skills, (particularly with mushrooms!)

There is so much I have enjoyed.... my piano masterclass back in the summer when I had eight young pianists playing singular notes on eight separate pianos to create collaborative chords was particularly memorable, spiritual even. There were new musical ventures including writing for large choirs, and collaborating with a merry group of Taiko drummers (not something I saw coming at me from Northern Ireland!) My involvement with 'The Music Promise', the program providing its youth with musical opportunity, was particularly rewarding. I shall miss meeting the various groups though I'm pretty sure that this scheme will become a legacy of the City of Culture and will continue on into 2014. Perhaps there's scope to keep my nose in its affairs!

Over and above everything, it was the friendly welcome and respect I was given that encouraged me to give musical advice and guidance - I loved being able to help young artists and pass on the nuggets I've picked up along the way in this nuts business. I did this on radio and TV including the CBBC programme, 'Hit The Stage' which gave me more kudos with my kid's school friends than any of my other hard worked efforts!

I cited my final concert as being a gift to the people of Derry and I meant it. I have made new friends, some for life. I shall come back soon and if I could miss out the Airporter Bus from Belfast in that equation, then life would be perfect!

www.neilcowleytrio.com