Culture desk

A Former Concert Pianist Plays Debussy Among the Ferns

Clive Shannon arrives a little before 3pm.

He hangs his tweed jacket on the back of a chair, and hesitates as to whether or not to keep his scarf on.

He sits at an old piano inlaid with gold floral patterns, and takes some time to feel out the keys, with a soft rendition of “Clair de Lune”.

Some shoppers had already taken their seats in the semi-circle of mismatched chairs around him, set up in the hothouse among the bay leaves and palms, fronds and vines, past the potted herbs and tubs of weed-killers.

“It’s relaxing,” says Valerie O’Brien, wrapped in a light-coloured coat, who arrived early and sat near the edge. “The atmosphere is very unusual, with all the plants around.” It’s the second Sunday she has come to sit for an hour and listen.

Three more men come in. Woolly hats and winter coats. One clasps a pot of hot tea. They settled near the back.

“This is a relaxing tango,” says Shannon, as he plays a few slow and meandering bars.

***

About a month ago, owner Sam Smith lugged in an old family piano to store at Urban Plant Life on Cork Street. Shannon, who lives nearby and drops in for coffee, spotted it. He asked if he could take it for a spin.

Shannon would listen as a child as his mother played hymns on their piano. He would join in. “I would put my hands on her hands while she was playing, and I would think I was playing,” he says.

As a teenager, he learned to play the organ in his local church, sat beside the organist, fascinated by the pipes and pedals.

Later, he studied music in Vienna and London. For 20 years, he worked as a concert pianist for the RTÉ symphony orchestra. But it didn’t last.

In the early 1990s, he got severe repetitive strain injury. For two years, he couldn’t use his hands for anything.

“It ended my career,” he says. “It also split up a relationship of 12 years, and I had to sell the house.” His mental health suffered.

He slowly rehabilitated himself. “But my hands aren’t fully back to what they used to be,” he says.

He has played little since then. The concerts at Urban Plant Life are the first time he has performed solo for an audience since. He plays organ sometimes in his church, he says. It is still tough, physically and mentally.

Musicians need to play, Shannon says. “You get ill if you don’t play. You feel out of balance.”

Playing in the hothouse appeals more than a concert hall. “People are themselves. They can always enjoy the plants if they don’t want to listen to the music,” he says.

Classical music can intimidate. “Forget about all the claptrap, and go with the flow. Smoke a little hash and go with the flow,” says Shannon.

“Music isn’t intellectual,” he says. “It’s distilled feeling.”

***

Shoppers pass through a plastic curtain and into the humid hothouse. Some settle in the corners of the room. Others listen quietly as they try to match pots and plants.

“Poor old Beethoven,” says Shannon, as he introduces his next piece, “Für Elise”, written for one of the famous composer’s students. “People think he was deaf all his life, but he was only deaf for the last five years.”

Shannon tells his listeners a little about each piece. The minuet was “an aristocratic version of the waltz”, he says.

French composer Claude Debussy died 100 years ago, says Shannon, as he strikes the first notes of “Clair de Lune”.

“I call this Debussy among the ferns,” he says, as he glances around the room.

Some customers close in on the performance space. One holds a coffee in one hand, a snake plant in the other. Others rustle as they move through the leaves of standing plants.

Frédéric Chopin is his favourite, he says, “The poet of the piano.” He plays four slow, sombre nocturnes. One waltz.

Shannon finishes with Mozart’s “Fantasy in D Minor”. He blows out two candles resting in brackets either side of the piano.

He turns slowly in his chair and thanks the audience. Buy a plant, he reminds them, as he slides two tomes of music into a tote bag.

In the coming months, Shannon plans to organise concerts in aid of Peter McVerry, and the Samaritans. In December, Urban Plant Life plans to hold a Christmas concert with Shannon, though no date is confirmed.

Zuzia Whelan portrait
Zuzia Whelan

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at zwhelan@dublininquirer.com.

 

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