Choral director shares the joy of Irish music

Canice Gleeson is sharing his love of traditional Irish melodies with the city, writes Liana Cafolla

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:11pm

Since he was a child, music has held an irresistible attraction for Canice Gleeson, founder and director of the Celtic Connections Chamber Choir and the International Concert Orchestra of Hong Kong.

"One of my earliest memories is of trying to reach the keys on my grandparents' piano," he says of his childhood in Kilkenny, Ireland. "It was like a magnet. Music is in my bones and I knew from an early age that it was the one thing that made me happy."

He started piano lessons at age six, and at eight started to study the guitar. "My parents bought me a full-sized guitar, and I was so small the guitar was the same size as me."

Irish music and dance comes from the soul. It is inclusive, inviting and down to earth
Canice Gleeson

Besides these two instruments, Gleeson, who's also music director at the German Swiss International School and vice-chairman of the International Schools Choral Music Society, plays the clarinet and tin whistle, and enjoys singing. His parents recognised his musical ability and with their support, music soon took up all his spare time. "I was just into music," he says. "I was determined that that was what I wanted to do."

He took lessons, joined choirs and orchestras, and played at music festivals. His best memories are of the shared joys of the process of music creation, where he felt a sense of belonging and camaraderie with fellow musicians gained through long hours of practice, fine-tuning and repetition, culminating in the thrill of performing together.

Gleeson has seamlessly entwined the threads of his performing and teaching experience. "Teaching music and choral and orchestral directing are what I love to do. I will always be a teacher; it's who I am. I'm fortunate I get to do both."

His formative experiences have filtered into his teaching methods, he says. "I push performance big-time at school, based on my own experiences. A lot of students now don't have the opportunities I had. I put a huge amount of time into choirs, orchestras, performances and festivals, and collaboration with other schools. The rehearsal process connects everybody," he says.

After completing a bachelor's degree in music and a postgraduate diploma in education from University College Cork, he did his master's degree at Newcastle University in Britain, and attended summer schools in conducting at New York University and the Juilliard School.

Gleeson, 41 ("but … I still think I'm in my 20s"), came to Hong Kong in 2007, after a stint as director of the British School in Tokyo. While there, he and a couple of friends set up a company organising festivals of Irish music and ceilis (traditional Irish dance gatherings). "I was inspired by how the Japanese embraced Irish music and culture, and realised that people everywhere connect with it. Irish music and dance comes from the soul. It is inclusive, inviting and down to earth."

Recognising the music's cross-border appeal, Gleeson established the Celtic Connections Chamber Choir in Hong Kong four years ago. "Music has the power to bring people together and there is nothing like a choir to connect," he says. "There are plenty of excellent choirs in Hong Kong catering for all styles of music, but not Irish music. I wanted to create events that showcased choral, instrumental and Irish dance music."

The choir performs Irish and contemporary choral and instrumental music, accompanied by traditional Irish musicians and dancers. Its Christmas and summer concerts held in St John's Cathedral in Central have raised about HK$200,000 for local charities. The choir, which also performs at the annual St Patrick's Society of Hong Kong's ball, sang at the closing ceremony of the Hong Kong Asian Gaelic Games in 2009, and in the Forbidden City Concert Hall in March 2012 with Irish uilleann piper Davy Spillane and the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong.

Gleeson says Chinese audiences have responded with gusto to the performances. "The melodies of Irish folk music have some similarities with Chinese folk music, and they just loved that sort of spiritual sound. Particularly, they identified with the rhythm and energy of the music. There's something honest about Irish songs and Irish music. They're telling stories," he says. "Even if you don't understand the language of the story, you can feel it."

Gleeson's close involvement with Irish music while living abroad has helped temper the nostalgia he feels for his home country, by allowing him to retain strong links with his national culture. That cultural connection is also an attraction for the choir's members, many of whom hail from Ireland and are deeply committed to the choir.

Gleeson says the singers, who represent a broad spectrum of backgrounds, get both great enjoyment and stress relief from the sessions.

"We're focusing on making a sound, working together, we're having a laugh," he says. "They walk out the door smiling, laughing, and it's like a weight's been taken off them. And I'm the same. It's like mental yoga."

The group's shared enjoyment of both the music and the rehearsal process creates a vibrant connection that is a bonus for audiences, he says. "When the performers are enjoying it, you're making more of a connection with the audience, and the audience feeds off that."

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Celtic Connections performs "A Celtic Dream" with the International Concert Orchestra of Hong Kong and traditional Irish musicians on June 5 at St John's Cathedral, Central. For more information, visit