Life

ArtBeat: Left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy, and The Man who Swallowed a Dictionary

Left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy will perform at this year's Belfast International Arts Festival
Left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy will perform at this year's Belfast International Arts Festival Left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy will perform at this year's Belfast International Arts Festival

ARTISTIC director Richard Wakely described this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival at its launch as 'fertile ground' to promote the brightest and bravest talent. This year’s featured artist, the brilliant left-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy, redefines what a musician can do. Born without a right hand, McCarthy (34) wanted to study piano from early on.

“I had a light-bulb moment hearing a friend Hinaku play a Beethoven piano sonata at school assembly. I was 14, which is incredibly late to start for an instrumentalist, but thought ‘Why not be a one-handed pianist?’ As a teenager, you think you can be an astronaut, anything’s possible.” He had, as he notes, found his thing.

McCarthy’s parents were supportive, bought him not a piano ('too expensive') but a new little keyboard from Argos ('of course'). He says playing it was, and is, a liberating experience.

“I discovered a musical communication I’d been craving, and loved the attention.” He is playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto for Left Hand, commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who lost an arm in the First World War. Here the left hand creates a soundscape that makes you think you’re listening to two hands. “Yes, it has range, intricacy and Ravel treats the piano as an orchestra.”

McCarthy is giving his account of this jazzy piece as well as Britten’s Diversions on October 20 with the Ulster Orchestra in a reprise of Wittgenstein’s 1951 Prom. He’s also a motivational speaker, talking on October 19. “It may sound corny, and American, and you need a thick skin, but I truly believe anything is possible.”

It’s impressive when artists encourage new talent. Paul McVeigh is encouraging fellow artists via two artistic residencies. McVeigh has set one of his new authors’ residencies in the beautiful Harrison Chambers of Distinction. He says where you write has an influence.

“The artwork here, bay windows and views onto tree-lined streets help. I worked on my play Big Man here.”

The other residency is online. The budding writers gain mentoring from authors such as Kit de Waal (My Name is Leon) and Lucy Caldwell, tips on publishing from David Torrans of No Alibis Bookshop, hints on performance from actor Tony Flynn. It’s a room with a long view. Apply by October 1 via www.chambersofdistinction.com/the-paul-mveigh-residency

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So, to the re-launch at the Linen Hall Library, of The Man who Swallowed a Dictionary, Robert Niblock’s keenly awaited, delayed, one-man show about David Ervine, now premiering at the Lyric Theatre on August 29.

Paul Garrett, with trademark moustache, acted a passage with real energy. Director Matthew McElhinney wryly commented: “It’s been like Ervine’s life and the stress of it. The script’s been in flux but it’s going to be a much stronger work. Like the Good Friday Agreement itself, we’ve got there at the 13th hour and the audience will be our referendum".

Paul Garrett as David Ervine in The Man who Swallowed a Dictionary
Paul Garrett as David Ervine in The Man who Swallowed a Dictionary Paul Garrett as David Ervine in The Man who Swallowed a Dictionary

Asked for a significant quote, McElhinney said: “Ervine said a lot, but ‘Sectarianism doesn’t grow wild in a garden, it's cultivated in a window box'.”

Jane Hardy